John Casey's Ship Comes in with a National Book Award for His Novel About Fishermen's Lives

UPDATED 01/22/1990 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/22/1990 at 01:00 AM EST

Though John Casey has always considered his stutter more an inconvenience than a disability, it has subtly affected his life. In high school, it drew him to music. "No one stutters when they sing," he says. "Singing is one of my minor vanities." At Harvard, the problem thwarted a budding interest in a young woman named Diana—when Casey called her home, he couldn't spit out her name—but also fostered an interest in the stage. "I read for a part and discovered I didn't stutter, because I was acting," he says. Law school—also at Harvard—was another matter: "I could only argue the side of the case that had the fewest hard consonants in it," he once explained. "Meanwhile there were 150 people in the room ready to tear you apart verbally. I mean, this was not speech therapy class." Ultimately, Casey says, "I became a writer, in part because I always had to think up lots of words to replace the ones I couldn't say."

On the printed page, freed from the tyranny of Bs, Ds and Ts, Casey, 50, achieves a true eloquence that was acknowledged in November when he won the National Book Award for his second novel, Spartina. It is the story of a Rhode Island fisherman's struggle to make a living and to maintain a measure of dignity as rich summer people overrun his small town. The book's main character, Dick Pierce, is so knowledgeable about the coast and the sea that it's hard to believe Casey himself wasn't raised among fishermen. In fact, he is closer in class to the yachting types who threaten to reduce Pierce and his friends to caretakers and pets.

Casey's father, Joseph, was a lawyer and four-term congressman from Massachusetts; his mother, Constance Dudley, is a political activist who counts the early American poet Anne Bradstreet among her ancestors. Casey grew up in affluence in Washington, D.C., attending St. Albans prep school and later the elite Le Rosey boarding school in Switzerland. Yet he did not always feel privileged. Until his teens, "I was a fat, short kid with a crew cut who stuttered," Casey recalls. Then, coming off the slopes with friends one afternoon in Switzerland, "I remember looking at the reflection in a plate-glass window and not being able to find myself," he says. "I saw this friend and that friend, but there was another fellow in a gray parka, and I didn't know who he was. He was tall and athletic. It was a real ugly duckling transformation after one year of playing ice hockey and skiing two hours a day and growing six inches."

Emotional maturity came more slowly. A bright but undisciplined student who had set a school record for demerits at St. Albans, Casey managed to get into Harvard and then to get thrown out, temporarily, during his sophomore year. "You weren't allowed to have girls in your room, and I violated that," he says. "Also I remember turning our dorm room into a sauna. You'd run the water very, very hot, then run out into the snow and frolic nude in the courtyard."

Casey spent six months in the Army before returning to finish college and begin law school. Though he was already writing short stories, he was still determined to follow his father into law and politics. "I was on a track," he says, "and writing was not on the track." Casey passed the Washington, D.C., bar in 1965 and briefly practiced with his father before deciding, as a diversion, to apply for a one-year fellowship at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. "I went, and soon I was pouring energy into writing in a way that was so intense I didn't think about the future," he says. One year turned into three, and Casey was hooked. With the proceeds of his first story sales, to the New Yorker and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, he and his wife, writer Jane Barnes, bought a four-acre island off Rhode Island.

There, for the next four years, Casey fished, farmed and wrote. "It's a wonderful balance," he says, "four hours of writing, then physical labor. I love digging postholes." He completed a novel, An American Romance (based on his time in Iowa), and a volume of short stories, Testimony and Demeanor. Both were well reviewed but quickly forgotten. He also, without really knowing it, completed the research for Spartina by getting to know the local fishermen. "There's a long period between when I live somewhere and when I write about it," says Casey. Divorced in 1980 from Barnes—the mother of his daughters Maud, 21, and Nell, 19—he now lives in Charlottesville, Va., with his second wife, artist Rosamond Pittman, and their daughter, Clare, 5. Since 1972, Casey has taught English at the University of Virginia. There, amid the horse farms and rolling hills, he wrote about the fishing life. "Some of the fishermen I knew were very, very smart," he says. "They can all run computers, and they've got to be good at seamanship, navigation and knowing where the fish are—which is part history, intuition and dreams. I was impressed by what a full life of the mind they have. And here they are living amid lots of yachtsmen who don't give them credit for what they're doing."

Spartina gives them their due and has now brought Casey much closer to his modest ambition—"to be well paid so I can live and to have my books read." He likes to joke that the National Book Award barely makes the grade in his overachieving family—his brother-in-law, Dr. Harold E. Varmus, just shared the Nobel Prize in medicine—but he seems to enjoy the attention. As for his stutter, "It still lurks there," he says. "It doesn't bother me in my normal life, but Good Morning America wanted me to go on live, and I said no. That anxiety I could do without."

—Kim Hubbard, Linda Kramer in Charlottesville

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