The Native-settlement-turned-fishing village of Montauk, Long Island, New York’s easternmost land spit, is an alluring place. There’s ocean. There’s forest. There are pristine beaches, small ponds, dunes and a lighthouse. And for more than a century Montauk’s working-class residents co-existed, albeit reluctantly, with the upper crust from the nearby Hamptons. But their community began to morph early in the 21st century when climate change and overdevelopment began to pose significant dangers to the town’s continued existence.
This reality is the centerpiece of Celine Keating’s intense and elegantly-written third novel, The Stark Beauty of Last Things.
The story centers around the 11-acre Moorlands Parcel, an untamed area where locals hike, picnic and birdwatch. Not surprisingly, environmentalists want it preserved, while out-of-town realtors have swooped in with plans to build multi-million-dollar homes on the property. In fact, the developers are so eager to build that they’ve offered people whose homes abut the Parcel — the majority of whom live hand-to-mouth in houses that have been in their families for generations — vast sums to sell their holdings. Many find the offer tempting.
Other ideas are also floating around, and a third group of townspeople want to build an affordable housing complex on the land. They argue that the workers who wait tables, bartend and clean hotel rooms during Montauk’s busy tourist season deserve to live in the town they service, rather than 50 miles away in less expensive parts of the county.
As you likely imagine, tensions run high as the deadline for what to do with Moorlands Parcel looms closer and closer.
Keating brings readers deep inside the conflict and introduces a diverse set of Montauk residents, all of them compelling. The story is told from each of their perspectives: There’s Clancy Frederics, a former foster kid who had a brief but meaningful childhood relationship with a volunteer Big Brother named Otto Lansky. Lansky, now retired after decades on the police force, wants little more than to fix his relationship with his estranged daughter, Theresa Nolan, a beautiful but remote bartender at a popular restaurant. Other characters include twenty-something Molly Lundgren and her boyfriend Billy Linehan, a fish seller and a fisherman who are lovingly raising Linehan’s 11-year-old brother, Jonah. Artist and hotel proprietor Julienne Bishop, her husband Rob and their son Max comprise other central players. That said, the presence of the Land Use Committee — five men — provides an endless source of tension for residents.
Keating is a masterful storyteller, and she has created a mood that blurs the lines between suspense, mystery and menace. What’s more, Montauk’s meaning in each individual’s life adds texture to the story. This becomes especially poignant following Otto’s unexpected death.
Once it becomes known that Otto left his home, money and membership on the Committee to Clancy, a relative newcomer to the area, gossip becomes fierce. Did Clancy trick Otto into giving him an inheritance that should have gone to Theresa?
For his part, Clancy is staggered. He feels that Otto’s gift is undeserved and hates the responsibility he’s been handed. “The conflicts in the town weren’t just rich outsiders versus working class locals,” Keating writes. “They were more nuanced — between commercial and sport fisherman, environmentalists and small business owners.”
So, what to do?
Suffice it to say that compromise seems unlikely. As debate swirls, the pushes-and-pulls on the townspeople, made worse by a hurricane that causes significant property damage, come into play. Throughout, Keating presents a compassionate glimpse into the lives of good people who are struggling to live with integrity and purpose. During the unfolding yearlong battle, Keating skillfully probes other issues in the characters’ lives, among them, the lifelong after effects of being raised by a string of strangers, the ups and downs of romantic love, and what it means to protect children while allowing them the freedom to explore and discover their passions. All told, it rings true.
Deft and wise, evocative and potent, The Stark Beauty of Last Things is one of 2023’s most engaging small-press novels. While I found the step-parent relationship between Jonah and Molly a bit too rosy, this is a small critique in an otherwise vibrant and timely novel.
The Stark Beauty of Last Things
By Celine Keating
She Writes Press
384 pages; October 2023