The rest of the world has discovered Point Dume, and that doesn’t make 35-year-old Ellis Gardner happy. Not at all. For as long as anyone can remember, Ellis has been the queen of the local surfing scene, the rare female who can keep up with her male counterparts in every way. She still has her private oceanside cottage and her inherited fortune, which means that she’ll never have to let work get in the way of her surfing time. But she has lost her view, tarnished now with yuppie mansions and hobby vineyards, “back to the land” projects of disenchanted businessmen like Frank Bane.
Ellis is sleeping with Frank but despises herself for it, even as part of her enjoys the hold she has over him. Meanwhile, Frank’s wife Janice, along with a dozen or more women like her, is sleeping with Ellis’s friend-with-benefits Pablo, the pot supplier of choice to the area’s bored but doped-up housewives. Sound like a dysfunctional community? A recipe for disaster? You’d be right.
Behind all this “Desperate Housewives” meets Blue Crush drama is the drug-growing economy that supplies pot poacher Pablo with his best bud. The Mexican drug cartels, daunted by post-9/11 improvements to border security, have solved that problem by secretly planting acres of marijuana fields in public and private lands throughout the American West, including Frank’s own backyard vineyard. The growers pack military-grade weaponry and use industrial-strength pesticides on their crops --- and, by extension, in the nearby ocean. Personal tragedies constantly lurk around the edges of POINT DUME, but none so poignant as that of Felix Duarte, an idealistic young Mexican man drawn to the States by the promise of a better life for his family back home, inspired by the amorous response of his girlfriend to earn money so he can marry her. But heat, stress and isolation soon take their toll, and Felix’s dreams of a better world are swallowed by troubling hallucinations.
The chapters of POINT DUME focus on the various players in this tragicomic story: Ellis, Pablo, Frank, Janice and Felix. The chronology moves from spring to summer to fall, when, as Ellis reminds us, “Santa Anas signaled the end of summer.” The Santa Ana winds, and the wildfires they often fuel, portend the characters’ crises flaring up, but they also, perhaps, foretell a chance at a return to Ellis’s ideals, another chance at a simpler beginning.
In her acknowledgments at the end of the novel, Katie Arnoldi makes it clear that part of the purpose of POINT DUME is to shed light on the problems of environmental degradation resulting from the U.S. government’s drug policies and the Mexican drug cartels’ tactics. Certainly anyone who has read a newspaper carefully over the past several years is aware of these concerns on at least some level. Where POINT DUME shines is in its ability to put a human face on these ripped-from-the-headlines circumstances. Arnoldi’s characters are broadly drawn, to be sure, but she gives each of them a certain humanity, their stories a poignant urgency, that will draw readers in to this interdependent community and not let them go.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 18, 2011