From Memorial Day until the student workers and tourists leave in the fall, the island community of Put-In-Bay, Ohio, thrives on alcohol, drugs, sexual experimentation, and any other means of forgetting responsibilities. To Brad Shepherd–recently forced out of his job as a junior high math teacher after the overdose death of a student–it’s exactly the kind of place he’s looking for.Allured by the comfort and acceptance of the hedonistic atmosphere, Brad trades his academic responsibilities and sense of obligation for a bouncer’s flashlight and a pursuit of the endless summer. With Cinch Stevens, his new best friend and local drug dealer, at his side, Brad becomes lost in a haze of excess and instant gratification filled with romantic conquests, late-night excursions to special island hideaways, and a growing drug habit. Not even the hope from a blossoming relationship with Astrid, a bold and radiant Norwegian waitress, nor the mentoring from a mysterious mandolin player named Caldwell is enough to pull him out of his downward spiral. But as Labor Day approaches, the grim reality of his empty quest consumes him. With nowhere left to run or hide, Brad must accept that identity cannot be found or fabricated, but emerges from within when one has the courage to let go.A look at one man’s belated coming of age that’s equally funny, earnest, romantic, and lamenting, Doug Cooper’s debut novel explores the modern search for responsibility and identity, showing through the eyes of Brad Shepherd how sometimes, we can only come to understand who we truly are by becoming the person we’re not.
" Don't let yourself get bored. Exist to question, question your existence."
Brad Shepherd is a younger high school math teacher, who for all of his life has followed the rules and his parents wishes. Suddenly, while in the middle of a lesson, one of his students passes out and dies from a drug overdose. The school-board, not wanting any trouble, offers Brad a nice package to leave. Brad takes his package and runs away to a small summer-vacation island in Put-in-Bay, Ohio. There he meets up with a menagerie of friends, Haley, Cinch, Birch and Astrid. Brad picks up a job as a bouncer at one of his friends bars and quickly falls into the party scene, drugs, more drugs and even harder drugs and women (and other lovers). Trying to erase from his mind the school tragedy,Brad may just create more problems for himself.
This is a modern-day coming of age story for adults; adults that have succeeded in the eyes of society, but still feel like something is missing, that all that they were promised is not present. Being the same age as Brad in this story, I can relate. Though I haven't quite gone through a tragedy like his and hopefully would not fall into sex, drugs and alcohol to fix it; Brad's struggle with finding what he wants to do in life still resonates for my age group. I felt particularly bad for Brad's character when the school so quickly pushed him out of his job since he was a younger, non-tenured teacher and the issue would be more easily fixed by letting him go then trying to deal with whatever mess was left in it's wake. The setting and eternal-summer type atmosphere of Put-in-Bay is a great setting for Brad's raucous quarter-life-crisis and subsequent recovery. With great descriptions, I could easily picture this small island town and feel the atmosphere of the party life. Even though, Brad's fall was a hard one, he eventually learns that he is "drowning in a worse reality than the one I was trying to escape."
Take a 360 tour of The Round House, where Brad's character worked.
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A Deeper Look at Outside In from Doug's Blog: By Cooper. We'll take a deeper look into
Much of what appears on the surface of Outside In is a mask concealing a much deeper and sometimes opposite meaning. Although some of the events are similar to those in my life, everything that happens in Outside In is there for a reason and has many layers of meaning. Setting Outside In at Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island in the middle of Lake Erie might seem to those who know about my background as a connection to my roots. But despite growing up merely fourteen miles away from the island in the Lake Erie coastal town of Port Clinton, I never spent much time at Put-in-Bay in my formative years except for twice. The first was a sixth grade safety patrol spring field trip rewarding us for our service in which I remember only the waves being so high on the ferry ride back, I questioned I would ever leave firm ground again. The second was a rainy, chilly day after high school when a girlfriend and I snuck over to her family’s summer condo to be alone without the fear of parents pulling in the driveway and sparking the frantic search for clothes followed by the transparent facade of composure that nothing was going on when they entered.
Not until I left Port Clinton for college at Miami University, came back to teach junior high math for a year, then left again to teach in St. Louis, and I had the serendipity of connecting with a bunch of Put-in-Bay workers on a trip to Key West that I found my way back to South Bass Island. Despite my mathematics background, I guess I never learned the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. It was during the several summers I spent there while teaching in St. Louis during the school year that the contrast, mystery and beauty of the island resonated with me. I remember standing on the porch of the Round House, the very one described in the story, as golf carts buzzed by and people flowed through the park with the lake shimmering in the background that I thought, This would be the perfect setting for a literary novel.
Using an island as a setting in a novel is nothing new. The unique attributes of isolation, finite resources, and the influence of water have made islands a popular choice in novels ranging from Robinson Crusoe to Treasure Island to Lord of the Flies. Islands are recognized as a microculture and place for escape, transformation, or sometimes even exile and punishment. The archetype of the island is one buried deep in the psyche often representing the earth’s mandala and a symbol of unification of self. In Outside In, South Bass Island plays all these parts at times. But more than just a backdrop of where the action happens, the island serves as another character in the story, one that inspires, guides, challenges, and even levies consequences.
But why this island? Why choose to set the story at Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island in Ohio? Two unique factors set this island apart from all others and make it the perfect setting for a story about a teacher, who is fleeing from the haunting death of a student due to a drug overdose, becoming lost in a haze of excess and instant gratification. These attributes are, one, the contrast to the classic Manifest Destiny theme and, two, the Battle of Lake Erie history. By starting the journey of the protagonist in St. Louis, known as the Gateway to the West, but rather than forging west in search of a better life, he delves deeper into the middle of the country, it is a direct contrast to the concept of Manifest Destiny. With minimal external unexplored land and frontier remaining, the character’s path represents the need to look deeper in oneself to find the answers to problems and that dreams don’t lie on the horizon; they lie within.
The Battle of Lake Erie history, however, is the main reason why South Bass Island was chosen over all others. It was there that Oliver Hazard Perry led a decisive naval battle in the War of 1812 which secured the North shore for the US forces and established peace between US, Canada, and Great Britain. Commemorating the victory, which celebrated its bicentennial on September 10, 2013, stands the world’s tallest Doric column at 352 ft (107m) known as Perry’s Monument. The monument, which is the setting of many scenes in the novel, serves as a protective and comforting figure. It represents the conflict that took place there so long ago with Perry sending his famous message to William Henry Harrison following the battle, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”, but it is also symbolic of the inner struggles the characters are having and contrasts the difficulty in the modern search for identity of knowing exactly who the enemy is.
This is another installment in my “A Deeper Look” series peeling back the layers of Outside In to better understand the meaning of the setting, themes, characters, plot, and style.
In creating Outside In I envisioned a cross between The Catcher in the Rye and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Whereas Catcher is about how to enter adulthood without losing oneself and Fear and Loathing deals with finding the American Dream by destroying and abusing the symbols of American consumerism, Outside In proposes identity can’t be found or fabricated but emerges from within when one has the courage to let go.
This letting go for many of the characters in Outside In translates to a hedonistic pursuit involving alcohol, sex, and drugs, the vices so readily available to a person who wants to forget. These vices symbolize the modern trials people face in their journeys of becoming. What starts as recreational experimentation and the exploration of new experiences transform to obsession and complete loss of self. This descent into excess and instant gratification is meant to raise awareness of current societal issues with addiction and self-medication and pose the question, At what point do the tools we use in our journey become the focus of our search?
Watching the characters react with immaturity and irresponsibility to deal with their lives is often frustrating and uncomfortable in the story. This is intentional and meant to represent what psychologist Erik Erikson referred to as a “Quarter Life Crisis”. Erikson theorized when events transpire to thwart the development of intense, intimate relationships for those in their twenties and early thirties, an identity crisis ensues triggering doubt of the life decisions made and the steps to take going forward, inducing feelings of betrayal, isolation, and loneliness. Related to the Quarter-Life Crisis, the characters’ actions are also meant to draw attention to the delayed rites of passage so prevalent in modern culture. With the abundance of choices, twenty-somethings are spending extended periods in higher education and living at home with parents for longer periods of time than previous generations. This uncertainty and fear to move forward into adulthood can create a paralysis in which a person is more likely to go backward than forward.
The connection to the title in Outside In is how the characters hide behind masks and veils and put themselves in environments to create the image of who they think they should be. They believe to become, they must change their outside worlds to allow their true selves to come out instead of strengthening their inner selves so that they emerge confidently and are no longer guarded and hidden. Evidenced in not only action but also in speech, the dialogue is often intentionally on-the-nose and represents another shield the characters use to protect themselves. They talk about passion and living life to the fullest but rarely do anything except escape to whatever vice is available. Outside In is rich in symbolism and meaning. Even the character names, from the main characters to the ones with supporting roles, have been chosen to say something about that person and also have a common theme connecting them all. But I won’t reveal all the secrets here. Just as one has to unwrap a present to appreciate the contents, peel back the layers and see beyond the party in Outside In.
and Literary References:
This is another installment in my “A Deeper Look” series peeling back the layers of Outside In to better understand the meaning of various aspects and characteristics of the novel. Warning! This article contains spoilers of events in the novel. Although on the surface, Outside In may appear to be simply a hedonistic pursuit of the endless summer, as the title suggests, one must look past the appearance to get to the true meaning at the core. Just as the characters wear masks and put themselves in situations to be the people they think they should be rather than letting go and allowing the person they really are to emerge from the inside, many of the events and actions have a deeper meaning through their connection to other literary works.
Following are some of the literary references in Outside In:
1) A Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne: Both Scarlet and Outside In deal with sin, legalism, and guilt as major themes and the main characters are motivated to create a new life devoid of the shame of past experiences. One direct reference is in Chapter 11 when Brad, Cinch, Stein, Griffin and Birch are at Heineman’s Winery in the back courtyard playing the Name Game. After a trip to the restroom to balance their escalating alcohol buzz, the suggestion is made to join the others in the front bar. Griffin says, “You go ahead. I’m way too amped to be around those folks. I might as well tattoo a big red C on the end of my nose.” This is referencing the scarlet “A” Hester Prynne is forced to wear on her dress after being found guilty of adultery in Hawthorne’s 1850 work of romantic fiction. Just as Hester was cast out to live with the shame and guilt of her sin, Griffin fears he would be discovered and face consequences for his indulgence.
2) The Tell-Tale Heart and The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe: From the rhythmic passages to the supernatural atmosphere and frequent descent of the lead character into monomania and paranoia similar to Poe’s narrators, Outside In is loaded with references to The Tell Tale Heart and The Raven. During his drug-induced delusions and hallucinations, Brad suffers from the same “over-acuteness of the senses” that Poe’s narrator does in Tell Tale Heart. The opening and closing of doors to investigate and block out painful feelings is another connection between Outside In and Poe’s works. The smile Cinch hides behind when confronted by the police on the way back from the monument after being up all night and the one Brad casts into the night at the invisible surveilance team once he realizes there is nothing in the apartment to incriminate him allude to the narrator’s smile when the police come to search the place in Tell Tale Heart. One of the most glaring similarities is at the end of Outside In as grief-stricken Brad laments the loss of Cinch, the faint tapping and consistent gentle rapping from Cinch’s room that awakes Brad pays homage to the similar sounds in The Raven: “While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.”
3) Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce: Similar to Joyce in Portrait, Outside In contains certain autobiographical facts from my life. By using factual details in Outside In, I am paying tribute to Portrait as Joyce did the same in his creation of Stephen Dedalus, his fictional alter ego, and also having fun with the tendency of first novels to be autobiographical, leaving it up to the reader decide what actually happened and what is fabricated for the story. Both stories incorporate the pursuit of sensual pleasures to initiate the awakening of the protagonist after a self-imposed exile and extensively use free indirect speech. Brad’s first visit to the top of Perry’s Monument is a direct reference to the classic Daedalus myth for which Joyce names his protagonist. At the top of the monument, Brad feels imprisoned by his family, the events of his past, and his culture in general. He contemplates how easy it would be to jump from the deck: “At the edge of the observation deck, only a four-foot concrete wall separates me from an attempt at flight. In just one motion I could be over the side. It would be so easy—too easy. I have to step back.” This alludes to how Daedalus, the father of Icarus, was imprisoned in a tower to prevent the knowledge of the labyrinth from spreading, and he created a set of wings for him and Icarus to escape. Also paying homage to Portrait are the boat ramp and cliff diving scenes in Outside In. Just as the leap from the rocks into the water in Portrait represented a rite of passage to freedom and independence so does it in Outside In. As the characters emerge from the water and Brad muses, “The moonlight reflects off the water on their skin, radiating a soft glow.”, this is a reference to how Dedalus remembers how they “gleamed with cold wet lustre” and “their bodies were heavy with cold seawater”.
DOUG COOPER has traveled to more than twenty countries on five continents and has held jobs in service, teaching, and business. He now lives and writes in Las Vegas. Outside In is his first novel.
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