PORTLAND – The buttoned-down crowd at one of the city’s private social clubs was regaled recently by the writer Crash Barry. In a sprawling talk that featured several excerpts from “Tough Island, True Stories from Matinicus, Maine,” Barry kept the dinner guests spellbound with his trademark tales of drugs, death, and shenanigans from Maine outposts.
Steve Luttrell, president of the Portland Club, welcomed Barry by saying he was proud to have him speak there, and that he’d been following his writing for years. Luttrell, also editor and publisher of the Cafe Review for all its twenty-three years in existence, knows something about the balance between art and entertainment. His poetry journal published Charles Bukowski’s last poem before his death.
Most club members were on-hand to hear Barry speak, including Bill Dow, five-time president and long-time member, and Dave Michaud, who has been with the club for one month and works on the website. Dow is not related to Fred Dow, who founded the club in 1886.
Early members, who it was all-male and quite conservative, might have been shocked to hear Barry, author of “Sex, Drugs and Blueberries,” a novel about the OxyContin epidemic in Washington County, and “Marijuana Valley,” which is the “True Story of a Secret, but Legal Marijuana Farm” due out this fall. Barry, as if to emphasize his oeuvre, began his talk by getting high. A medicinal marijuana patient, and a licensed provider, Barry self-proscribed some pot in an herbal concoction were the marijuana leaf is steeped in alcohol to pull out the medicinal qualities. He used this liquid form to highlight the different ways the drug can be delivered into the system.
“It’s great that I can say this in a place like this,” Barry said, taking in the stately decor of the Portland Club’s dining room. “That I have a card from the state to smoke and grow pot.” Crash then opened a suitcase and removed a dropper bottle and drank a dropperful of THC “tincture.”
He said he likes to start speeches off with references to marijuana for two reasons. First, to promote “Marijuana Valley,” his book coming out in October, and second, to help people understand the medicinal value of pot and other herbs, especially as an alternative to popping pills.
“Get high, and realize the medical benefits for MS, Crone’s Disease, Sickle Cell Anemia, AIDS… it helps with loss of appetite associated with chemotherapy. There are different delivery systems, and different strains for different ailments.”
The marijuana economy is in great shape, according to Barry, with one-quarter to one-half a billion dollars in untaxed weed. It’s $300-$400 an ounce from local, legal growers at a dispensary. The street cost is up to $500 an ounce. “You can make $20 an hour trimming pot in western Maine,” Barry said. “But you get paid in pot. I heard two guys talking about putting money in escrow to pay taxes.”
Twenty years ago, when these stories originally occured, Barry was stern man on a lobster boat, living on Matinicus Island, what he calls a “microcosm of America,” twenty miles off the Maine coast. “It was so small that right away you could tell who the drug addicts and the wife-beaters were,” he said. There were only fifty year-round residents, and nine ferry trips a year. The seclusion gave him a rich reserve of stories, but it seems time and distance have made it possible for him to tell them. “I’ve been lugging stories around for a long time,” Barry said of “Tough Island,” currently #4 at Longfellow Books. He touted the bookstore’s loyalty to local writers, pointing out that ten of the top twenty books at Longfellow in 2011 were by Maine writers.
In addition to his confrontational style, Barry also has a sensitive side. He said he discovered the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and bought the rights to one of her poems – this one regarding Matinicus – to include in his book.
Some of the stories he shared dealt with violence, adultery, and death. But each blended a mix of poignancy and pathos with the grim details of island life. He told of Vance Bunker, who shot at Weston Ames and missed. Chris Young laughed at him, so Bunker turned and shot Aims’ half-brother in the neck. They had molested his daughter’s lobster traps, and had been harassing them all day, so Bunker turned violent. “That’s not the Vance I know. Not the way the media portrayed him,” Barry said. “I know. I’m in the media. It’s hard to get it right in 400 words and a ten-second deadline. I’m not advocating that you shoot someone, but sometimes you have to take the law into your own hands.”
His writing sometimes causes confusion with readers. “I’m accused in fiction of it being me, and in non-fiction of making it up,” he said. “Regarding ‘Tough Island,’ everyone said, “Bullshit, man. That didn’t happen.”
Tough Island is non-fiction, but he did change some names. “For the assholes, I changed their names. But the nice people, I kept their names in.”
He told about the island’s first and only suicide and an awful gossip he called “Mary Margaret.” He ran into the real-life basis for her his reading at the Portland Public Library. “Imagine if an evil character from your non-fiction shows up at your reading,” he said. He didn’t know she was there, until after the event, but he was happy to hear she was deaf and didn’t catch the sound of her own voice as he read her in character.
A common theme to many of the tales is the rugged nature of individuals in an industry so often marked by tragedy. Just a few days before Barry’s talk, Earl Brewer, a fisherman off of Boothbay, was found dead in his boat. “You see a boat drifting, or a boat going in a circle. The call goes out on the radio, and a brother, son, or best friend goes out and hauls the last traps,” Barry said. “I’ve handled corpses a couple times before but I can’t imagine anything tougher.”
One such incident avoided being fatal because Barry was there to save the fisherman. Barry acted out Captain Donald’s near death, when he was caught in a trap’s rope and hauled overboard. Barry, while reading, collapsed on the Portland Club’s dining room floor in a show of grand drama, or perhaps the tincture kicking in.