Skip to main content

Montauk’s ‘Stark Beauty’

Tue, 01/09/2024 - 12:38
Céline Keating
Alexa Brandenberg

“The Stark Beauty of Last Things”  
Céline Keating
She Writes Press, $17.95

Beautiful, wild Montauk has always drawn people to it. Beginning with Arthur Benson and Carl Fisher and their elaborate dreams and schemes. Decades later came the steady trickle of New York City working-class exiles and surfers seeking nature and quiet. 

These days Montauk surges on, the bustling hip, surfy, commercial-fishing community (at least in the warmer months).

Amid all that, over the past century there's been a gobbling up of nature, ups and downs of the fishing industry, Montauk's vital cultural touchpoint, and, more recently, even as rising oceans threaten the hamlet's shorefront, skyrocketing real estate values driving out people who can no longer afford to live there.

Céline Keating captures all of this in her novel "The Stark Beauty of Last Things." A longtime and now former Montauk resident, she tells a story about the very essence of the place, interwoven with all the underlying social and economic tensions and environmental woes triggered by the area's booming popularity.

"Years back," one of Keating's characters says to herself, "when some in town began to be alarmed about how things were changing, others said, 'You have to have growth. You can't hold back time.' If they had known what was to come, maybe they would have acted differently. They hadn't, perhaps, had enough imagination."

As the title of the book hints, once treasures — woodlands, dunes, pristine bays, housing people can afford — are gone, buried by "progress," they become "last things," as Montauk risks becoming, as one of Keating's characters remarks, "an out-of-whack community for rich people." 

"Stark Beauty" is a layered story of a young man, Clancy Frederics, who pays a visit to a friend in Montauk one summer weekend. He's an average Joe with a midlevel job in the city, and his visit rekindles warm memories of the only other time he'd been all the way east, a day of fishing with his "Big Brother" as a foster-home kid. By pure chance he reconnects with that childhood mentor, who is now elderly and dying. Their warm, almost father-son bond thrusts Frederics into the center of a family's deep-seated wounds and the tensions and pressures that come with inheritance, in this case of valuable land. 

It's all wrapped around Montauk itself, staggeringly beautiful but besieged by intense development pressures, with working people struggling to hang on. Throughout is the underlying irony that Montauk's magnetism imperils the very thing that has driven its boom for centuries: nature.

Overnight, Frederics, the newcomer, is thrust into the leading role in decisions about his old friend's legacy, decisions at the core of Montauk's economic lifeblood, and around urgent calls for the village's retreat from the coast in the face of rising seas. He's a quick study and a sensitive soul, but he inevitably comes up against all the usual small-town stuff — suspicion, resentment, dismissal. 

Frederics eventually finds allies. Among them is Montauk itself. Like so many others before him, he is taken by the people and besotted by the land and the ocean. 

"Perhaps nature was more essential to human beings than he'd ever imagined," Keating writes of Frederics's Montauk epiphany. "It came to him that he felt more alive than ever before." 

Frederics is resolutely kind and decent, and these qualities are unwavering even as the story's hero comes up against door-slamming localism. Which is one of the tender gifts of "Stark Beauty": Being a good guy is not a sign of weakness, it is how you triumph.

Keating's novel is blessedly free of the clichéd excess and astonishing wealth that is now "the Hamptons." No hedge funders or celebrities make appearances. Instead, her characters are familiar locals — the attractive but fiercely protective barkeep; the decent, community-minded innkeepers; the boisterous, colorful, often grumbling fishermen; the irascible, impatient, self-serving local business heir. 

The novel unfolds over the course of a single year, the seasons weaving through the story — the calming arrival of fall, the quiet loneliness of winter, the optimism of spring, and summer: "The earth throbs with the impact of the season. . . . Everything is perfect, glorious, in the summer breeze. The ocean sparkles, the cocktails refresh. The earth's distress is camouflaged behind the stark and glossy beauty."

Keating balances the reality of Montauk life's darkness with its light. She deftly and beautifully winds history and vivid, loving descriptions of the people, the culture, the ocean, and the land into her tale. And she offers something of a solution to the question of Montauk's vulnerable-to-flooding oceanfront, a solution grounded in an optimistic truth: Different though her characters might all be, they share a unifying devotion to their hometown. 

Keating herself could be confused for one of the characters in her book who ends up deciding to leave. She and her husband purchased a small studio getaway in Montauk in 1988. They split their time between that studio and a rental apartment in New York City, where she worked in publishing and her husband worked for a union. 

After three decades, tired of the commute and living in two places, they decided to give Montauk a full-time try. But the place was too small, even for one person. And buying a house in Montauk was, by then, totally out of reach. They sold, and instead bought a house within view of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island.

"Leaving was probably the hardest thing I've ever done," Keating told me in an email.

She offers no neatly tied happy ending. But "Stark Beauty" offers hope that caring, committed people, those with enduring ties to Montauk and the means to hang on, might well save what's left. Someone like Julienne Bishop, an innkeeper and painter in the story, the sort of person you'd want as a best friend and at your side in adversity, who wonders "why, if we all love what we have here, it's so impossible to imagine preserving it as it is."


Céline Keating is the author of two previous novels, "Layla" and "Play for Me," and the co-editor of the anthology "On Montauk: A Literary Celebration."

Biddle Duke, the founding editor of The Star's East magazine, lives in Springs.

Your support for The East Hampton Star helps us deliver the news, arts, and community information you need. Whether you are an online subscriber, get the paper in the mail, delivered to your door in Manhattan, or are just passing through, every reader counts. We value you for being part of The Star family.

Your subscription to The Star does more than get you great arts, news, sports, and outdoors stories. It makes everything we do possible.