Keep Newburyport Weird

“Welcome to Jewelryport!” One of a hundred headlines offers that invitation to this seaport-turned-tourist-town on the New England coast as it lurches in fits and starts from its relaxed, cherished historic roots into the gotta-go-go, gentrified world of shiny new objects.

Keep Newburyport Weird: An Atlas of Downtown Rhyme & Surfside Reason, is a collection of guest columns written over 35 years in two local newspapers by Jack Garvey, author of Pay the Piper! A Street-Performer’s Public Life in America’s Privatized Times.

Indeed, Weird includes the “27th Chapter” of Piper, a 26-chapter book ending with the tease, “To Be Continued…”—adding to the view of a downtown busker those of movie theater projectionist, beach bum, social commentator, historian, linguist, punster, and satirist. And a man of metaphor.

Less a collection than an “atlas” with sections called “coordinates,” Weird is for readers “ready to navigate,” as “cartographer” Garvey says in his opening “projection.” From a lyrical laid-back life on a beach to contentious bricks at the shaded windows of City Hall, from peppered rosemary salmon on his grill to upscale restaurants’ “fancy fonts on the menus” for “paltry portions on the plates,” from gawking tourists behind the wheel to texting pedestrians outside the crosswalks, all the way to his satires starring Helen Highwater—herself half Road Runner, half Wily Coyote—Garvey maps Newburyport as “a microcosm of the American macrospasm.”

While many entries may be set on the streets of Newburyport and the sands of Plum Island, others, such as “Drinking a Size that Is Not Small,” rise from the locale into an issue undeniably coast-to-coast. Several, such as “Let’s Play Co-Inky Dink,” may be entirely about a national politics, while others, such as “Living with Trickle Down Trump,” describe the consequences of a presidential election close to home.

As if to prove the point, Garvey opens “A Tale of Two Tourist Towns” by asking us to invert the map of the lower 48 states to draw a tight and provocative comparison to Astoria, Oregon. That geographic inversion echoes the opening column, “A Year in a Day,” an inversion of the calendar into a clock, each month allotted two hours each, to begin anew at the stroke of midnight. It serves as the ideal table setter for a book flush with the wordplay and wit which Garvey has served his Newburyport readers. An opinion-page columnist, as Garvey puts it, inevitably “measures success as much in objection as in approval.”

While selecting columns for Weird, he also chose those that drew numerous responses pro or con, such as “Now Shooting in a Cinema Near You” and “Bagging a ‘Balanced Approach’.” For over 600 columns and counting, Garvey has enjoyed and endured a fair share, as he tells us, of both “thumbs-up and extended middle fingers,” as well as an occasional scream. When one woman raved approval for “Entering Cooked Kermit, 01951,” Garvey let on that, “judging from the response, it hit a nerve.” She exploded: “A nerve??? That one hit an aorta!!!” To offset his cardiac threats, Garvey offers playfully meditative sketches such as the title track, “Keeping Newburyport Weird,” and “Flirting with Their Generation,” a lament for the passing of time, a subject rendered more urgently in “A Time to Dream, a Time to Awake” and stoically in “A Mid-Winter’s Morning’s Dream,” both of which close the book.

Uh, not so fast. There are the “Projections”—an appendix that nicely, if subtly echoes the premise of “A Pipeline to the End Credits” in the cinema “Coordinate.” As rich in jokes and puns as in point and purpose, it includes Garvey’s one “killed” column, “Tuning into TrumpTV,” scheduled to run the day after the 2016 presidential election. A friend suggested he include it with a footnote saying that, though the prediction that didn’t come true, “it is not unDead.” Like every other map in Keep Newburyport Weird, it is very much alive.