Being inspired by your hometown is a blessing and curse: You ultimately are writing what you know, but you are also critical of what you love.
Such is the case with Joel Mowdy, who lives a bicontinental life now, with half his year spent in his wife’s native Lithu- ania on a centuries-old homestead in the woods (can we describe writer’s bliss any better?), is truly a son of the Mastic-Shirley area.
His debut novel, “Floyd Harbor Stories,” takes a hard, sobering but never judgmental look at characters Long Islanders have long interacted with but perhaps forgotten.
“You’re always going to have Mastic-Shirley and the economics that come with it, because Long Island will always need people to do the jobs they don’t want to do,” said Mowdy about his characters, who often are in menial positions or trying to find a ploy to make some easy money. Such is the case with the pivotal book-ending stories of his luminous short story collection, where the characters try to cash in on a loophole in a mattress return policy.
Part Southern Gothic, part Noel Coward, Mowdy deftly toes the line between poverty porn and sentimental boot- strap-lifting. His characters experience some ladder-up moments where they might overcome their circumstances, but
it’s never an enthusiastic run to climb. A young FIT student, a once-successful jingle writer, a teacher honored for con- necting to troubled youth: all fall victim to the stagnancy that defines the main character of the anthology, the cultivated roles in the East End of Suffolk County that just touches the Hamptons, but never in spirit.
Accomplishing what “Hillbilly Elegy” set out to do and what wunderkind Edouard Louis described in the New York Times as “autofiction, something France has been doing for more than 10 years,” Mowdy is quiet in his sagaciousness, never exploiting his characters to some exhaustive diatribe on why they need to improve or how they can do better.
Never political, “Floyd Harbor Stories” takes a stark look at humanity and survival interspersed with humor and rarities of compassion like the injured feral cat that unexpectedly finds a home in one story.
“These stories were 20 years in the making,” said Mowdy, with the last story written in 2017. Spanning his time as an undergraduate at Hofstra to his graduate program in the Midwest, to his current life as a father and an international cit- izen, Mowdy’s collection is one to evoke nostalgia for those from the area and a sense of wonder from those who have always poked fun at Mastic-Shirley.
With plenty of motifs — like the Ozymandias-like Salty’s, a broken-down building where a bakery once stood — perhaps a luxury few could envision in a town as destitute, “Floyd Harbor Stories” reads as casually, delightfully and “Long Island” as a bacon, egg and cheese on a roll with salt/pepper/ketchup.