“The Gulf” is a story told in storms ― gales and hurricanes and early snowfall. The novel, Belle Boggs’ debut, is climate fiction of a sort less likely to be deemed “cli-fi” than a gritty speculative work about a blasted Earth: It’s realist, near-historical, gently wry. What she shows us is not the jolt of an unrecognizable climate 50 years from now, but the half-submerged realization that the weather isn’t just weather anymore. It’s also a novel about a nation divided in ways that might seem sudden but that have been brewing for decades, even centuries.
Set on the Gulf Coast of Florida during the Obama administration, the novel blows open with a tropical storm that rises out of the placid blue sky. Marianne, a poet in her mid-30s, doesn’t see the deluge coming. She has just fled New York City, where she scraped by on part-time teaching and virtuosic budgeting, for sunnier climes. Just as her landlord informed her that her cheap apartment would be converted into a condo she can’t afford to buy, her novelist ex-fiancé, Eric, called with a job tailor-made for her: running a new low-residency Christian writing program in Florida. This was a favorite old joke of Marianne’s ― that one day she would open a writing program for evangelicals, to charge them exorbitant tuition in exchange for tolerating their anti-reason doggerel. Bizarrely enough, he claims that his great-aunt now wishes to open exactly this school in her now-shuttered beach resort.
Marianne hesitates, but turning down a paycheck ― and free oceanfront housing, and time and inspiration for “The Ugly Bear List,” her in-progress book of poems about things she hates the most (right-wing people and movements, primarily) ― seems injudicious. On the beach and in her damp motel room, she reads applicant submissions: pious verse and virginal vampire novels printed on pastel paper.
Almost as soon as she settles in the soon-to-be Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch, bad weather arrives. At the grocery store, a friendly woman with a cart full of nonperishable items warns her to stock up for a storm Marianne didn’t even know was forecast. “Faye’s the name,” she tells Marianne. “Nice to meet you, Faye,” Marianne responds. “The storm, honey,” the woman corrects. “The storm is Faye.” Even this woman knows that the storm is more of a character in Marianne’s life than she is ― more powerful, more inescapable.
As it turns out, Faye is a bit of a dud. Marianne watches it through the school’s big rec room windows and eats peanut butter sandwiches; it’s a spectacle all the more dazzling for its chaos, its edge of danger. The room “felt cozy and familiar and safe,” though afterward, Eric admonishes her that the big windows made it a perilous refuge.
As the fall and winter drift by, Marianne makes admissions decisions ― a class of poets, a class of nonfiction writers, a class of fiction writers ― hires teachers and prepares the tiny campus for their arrival. In the end, she chooses writers whose samples, though often ideologically distasteful to her, are somehow aesthetically intriguing. One of them is Donald Goldston, aka Davonte Gold, a washed-up R&B singer whose early stardom ― derived from a hit music video that featured his well-sculpted abs ― quickly destroyed him. He’s arrived with a mission to rehab his career by writing a novel, a thinly veiled account of his own rise, fall and imagined redemption. There’s also Janine, a devout schoolteacher and mother of two who took up poetry in middle age, after an onset of lyrical inspiration her husband believes comes from God. “Rick believed firmly in the intervening hand of God; he was like one of those biblical men who built boats and temples on command,” writes Boggs. “Janine sometimes felt an acute pain for her daughters, knowing they’d never find a man like their father.” Her divinely bestowed subject is Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who became the focus of a political and legal battle when her husband decided to remove her feeding tube after she’d spent nearly a decade in a persistent vegetative state.
When the first session begins, the atmosphere holds the kind of charged calm that anticipates a thunderstorm. Marianne is reunited with Eric, who has arrived to teach fiction; both still have feelings for each other, despite the broken engagement in their past and their different ideas of what partnership should mean, but she’s afraid her conservative students would be disgusted if they suspected a premarital affair between them. Janine is tickled to meet a woman she suspects is a literary agent at a student gathering; the well-manicured lady, Regina Somers, asks her probing questions about how she came to Genesis and what kind of writing she does. She also meets a classmate whose estranged husband, a doctor, had declared Terri Schiavo brain-dead. Marianne has developed a masochistic habit of listening to “Talking to Tad,” a radio call-in show hosted by Tad Tucker, “a state representative with a penchant for baseball metaphors, alliteration, and defense of the unborn,” sputtering impotently as he bloviates on-air about the evils of abortion.
On the surface, the first term is placid. The students and their liberal, artsy professors have productive classes, and in their free hours the writers gather for peer-organized Bible study and lawn games. If tension occasionally arises ― say, when one student reads from a work-in-progress featuring a thinly disguised Barack Obama as the Antichrist ― it can be defused. The divides are not insurmountable. Marianne even becomes friends with Janine, an incarnation of her “Ugly Bear List.”
Boggs’ tone is that of light social satire as she pricks laughingly at the petty narcissisms and superficialities of her characters on both left and right. “Love,” considers Marianne at one point of her still longed-for ex, whom she’d dumped. “It wasn’t much, but in the absence of other options she counted on it to get her through, like a tax refund.” But it’s not exactly lacerating; the book’s comedy emerges from its deft psychological observation, from how the gentle eddies of her characters’ psyches lead them into unexpected judgments, complaints and realizations about their own hypocrisies. Her characters, especially Marianne and Janine, are curious people, and their curiosity draws them both into unsought, even unpleasant self-awareness: awareness that they’re more similar to some than they thought they were, but also awareness that they’re less similar to others than they’d hoped. It’s hard not to feel affectionate toward these flawed humans, to quickly grow sympathetic to their social anxieties and their qualms. The stakes are compelling, if rather low. Nothing feels so terribly threatening. If anything, it seems this path of self-discovery will help break down artificial ideological barriers and bring individual healing.
Something more serious is afoot, however. Regina Somers is no literary agent but a representative of God’s Word God’s World, a Christian company that invests in for-profit schools. (She’s also, increasingly, closer to Eric than Marianne is.) Initially unbeknownst to Marianne, GWGW has heavily invested in Genesis, which was already running out of funding before opening, and it has its own agenda: to turn the writing school into a massive diploma mill and a petri dish for blockbuster Christian books. And it soon comes out that GWGW has donated to a campaign for a Florida personhood amendment, also backed by Tad Tucker ― and by Marianne’s younger sister, Ruth, a devout churchgoer and budding anti-abortion activist who took refuge in faith after their mother’s early death.
As a political firestorm bears down on the fledgling school, a hurricane is also charting a course in that direction. Leadership debates whether to suspend classes for the second term, a concession to the elements they’re loath to make. Weather, long the sturdy foundation of small talk, has become charged, factionalized like everything else. Janine’s older daughter, Beth, is an aspiring meteorologist who obsessively tracks the hurricane; Janine nervously scans her words for climate change rhetoric. “Janine’s take on weather was that it just was… Worrying about the weather felt a little intemperate and Godless to her.” But Beth reassures her that, “no, it wasn’t that. She was watching for a tropical storm. She was sure, based on a study of ocean temperatures and wind patterns, that one was about to get cooking.” As if studying ocean temperatures and their effect on violent storms could possibly be fully divorced from the question of climate change; as if weather could be considered in isolation from climate.
When we can’t comfortably talk about the weather, there’s really nothing left ― nothing that doesn’t violate the “no politics, no religion” dictum of polite social chatter. Talking about the weather has become talking about the climate, and the climate has become a fraught topic. It’s terrifying to realize that everything, even the weather that we often register only as background noise, has fangs and that the warning signs we brushed off for years ― the hotter summers, the wildfires, the unpredictable storm patterns ― presaged an apocalypse. The vicious extremes float up from beneath the placid surface of Boggs’ light comedy, just as they float up from beneath polite small talk and slightly strained Thanksgiving dinners. In ”The Gulf,” it’s not so much that the divides between us are trivial or can be overcome through love, but that they can’t be overcome through willful ignorance. The weather demands our attention, not because it’s safe or even thrilling to watch from a glassed-in room, but because it’s deadly.