April 1998

Portrait of an artist

By Peter Hedges
Review by
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Over seven years have passed since Peter Hedges' gorgeous debut, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, overwhelmed readers and critics with its heartfelt story of a quirky family in Endora, Iowa. Hedges has returned to Iowa—moving from farm to suburbs—in his much-anticipated second novel, An Ocean in Iowa.

A precocious four-year-old, Scotty Ocean stands atop a piano bench and brazenly proclaims, "Seven is going to be my year." Fast-forward three years, and seven doesn't seem to be anyone's year, especially not Scotty's. He couldn't have known, though, for "Scotty Ocean was not in possession of all the facts." The fact was that his doting, beautiful, artist mother Joan was a hopeless alcoholic. The fact was that his father, the Judge, was a stern man with little ability to display warmth of any kind. And Scotty certainly could not have known the fact that after the public carping at Joan's art opening (she had painted wild, disfigured nude self-portraits), his mother was leaving. Not to go paint, not to run to the A&P and not to pick up his sisters, Claire and Maggie. No, Joan Ocean was leaving for good.

Thankfully, Hedges' midwestern drama lacks the contrived drippiness of made-for-TV dramas. His prose walks between humor and pain. Tempering the jolt of abandonment with boyish exuberance, he shapes poignant scenes of seven-year-old expression out of the fissures of frantic emotional trauma.

Scotty's adventures and foibles recall my youth in Iowa, the stupid things I did, the tiny world view I had. Scotty gets his tongue stuck on an icy mailbox. He wants to befriend Andrew, the junior-high kid next door with the cool bike and an eye on his sister. Scotty runs from bullies and finds a hidden cove in neighborhood bushes. He has his first sexual stirring eyeing a friend's mother. And Scotty attempts a brash stunt to remain seven forever.

Hedges explores these childhood complexities in all their fullness, letting measured understatement stand for the gaps in Scotty's understanding. He infuses Scotty with the artistic temperament of his mother—as quick as Scotty is with a comment, he is equally susceptible to criticism or anger. Such sensitivity works as both boon and bane, as Scotty negotiates fragile territory—from art class to picnics with his mother. A powerful portrait emerges of the potential artist as a seven-year-old Iowan.

A profoundly touching novel, An Ocean in Iowa, mixes the recognition of innocence with the strain of blossoming maturity. Scotty exists in that delicate space where increasing comprehension can easily shatter boyhood beliefs. Life isn't about mom and dad, the pool and the car in the garage. It's about adaptation, compromise, and responsibility. In short, it's about growing up. Beautifully spare, carefully crafted, and unerringly observed, An Ocean in Iowa laps over the reader with tides, both low and high, of evocative emotion and telling tenderness.

Mark Luce is a writer in Lawrence, Kansas.

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An Ocean in Iowa

An Ocean in Iowa

By Peter Hedges
ISBN 9780786864041

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