By Gail McCarthy
---- — Frederick Dillen, an odd-job itinerant novelist, will have a homecoming when he returns to launch his latest book, set in a town that local readers will recognize as Gloucester.
The heroine is a “corporate undertaker” who comes from New York to shut down the town’s last fish plant. Instead, she stays to run it — and finds love and a home, besides. Then it gets difficult.
Dillen is no stranger to Gloucester or its rich maritime heritage. He lived here on several occasions for years at a time. In the earlier years, fishing vessels clogged the harbor, and when he woke to write in the hours before dawn, he looked out over an ocean that was blanketed in dots of light to the horizon, even in deepest winter, from the boats carrying fishermen out to the banks, or back from the banks, or working the shore.
“Beauty,” just released by Simon & Schuster, has received good reviews from both locals and those in the industry, with Publishers Weekly calling it “a feel-good story with a dash of romance.”
“After a career closing factories, a woman reclaims her blue-collar roots, revives a plant and saves a community,” a Kirkus Review critic wrote. “There are strong echoes of Jimmy Stewart rallying the townspeople in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life.’ Kudos to Dillen for his unusual premise.”
Dillen, who will read from “Beauty” today at the Rocky Neck Cultural Center, is eager to return to the city where he still has family and close friends after living here for about a decade. Some will remember his wife, actress Leslie Dillen, who staged a one-woman play she wrote, “Me & George,” sparked by her encounters with George Clooney on the set of “The Perfect Storm” when it was filmed here in 1999.
Born in Manhattan, Frederick Dillen has lived in countless places and worked many jobs, while trying to make a living as a novelist. Dillen lives in New Mexico for now, but Gloucester got more than 10 years of his life; a daughter and granddaughter still reside here.
He remembers writing before dawn in deepest winter in a house with no insulation and looking out over the ocean as far as the horizon. He remembers the big meeting in the 1990s when the Gloucester High gym filled with fishermen from Long Island to Maine arguing and hoping against implementation of the latest and toughest fishing regulations.
“It was heartbreaking to hear the institutional guys talk so confidently about the changes, and more heartbreaking to see that the fishermen were mostly older, proof that the kids were going off the island for other jobs,” he said.
During his time here, Dillen got hack work for big corporations and became familiar with that cutthroat world and with the term “corporate undertaker,” referring to the person who “buries the leftovers from mergers and acquisitions,” which includes the killing of jobs and selling of company assets.
From these worlds emerged the tale Dillen now tells in “Beauty,” a story that centers on Carol MacLean, a businesswoman in her 50s who hails from blue-collar Detroit. She climbed the corporate ladder, ultimately landing a position as an undertaker for a New York mergers-and-acquisitions firm. She has shut down dozens of factories and put hundreds of blue-collar workers, like her dad and the kids she grew up with, out on the street.
“She’s good at it, and she hates it,” Dillen said. “And when she realizes she’s going to get canned after burying her latest corpse, the last processing plant in a hard-times Massachusetts fishing port, she decides, with the help of people in town, to take over the old plant and run it.”
In this new setting, she meets a local fisherman, whose vessel is named Beauty. The new fishing regulations kick in, and her life begins a new phase.
Dillen is also the author of “Hero,” which was named Best First Novel of 1994 by the Dictionary of Literary Biography, and “Fool,” honored by Nancy Pearl as a Book Lust Rediscoveries selection in 2012.
Bill Stride, president and CEO of the Good Harbor Fillet Co., said “Beauty” is fun to read.
“Dillen really captures the economics of the fish business, the politics of commercial fishing, and the soul of a fishing community in hard times,” Stride said. “I enjoyed it immensely.”
If you go
What: Frederick Dillen reads from his new book, “Beauty”
When: Today at 5:30 p.m.
Where: Rocky Neck Cultural Center, 6 Wonson St., Gloucester
How much: Free