The Great Offshore Grounds

The Great Offshore Grounds

by Vanessa Veselka


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A wildly original, cross-country novel that subverts a long tradition of family narratives and casts new light on the mythologies—national, individual, and collective—that drive and define us.

On the day of their estranged father's wedding, half sisters Cheyenne and Livy set off to claim their inheritance. It's been years since the two have seen each other. Cheyenne is newly back in Seattle, crashing with Livy after a failed marriage and a series of dead ends. Livy works refinishing boats, her resentment against her freeloading sister growing as she tamps down dreams of fishing off the coast of Alaska. But the promise of a shot at financial security brings the two together to claim what's theirs. Except, instead of money, what their father gives them is information—a name—which both reveals a stunning family secret and compels them to come to grips with it. In the face of their new reality, the sisters and their adopted brother each set out on journeys that will test their faith in one another, as well as their definitions of freedom.

Moving from Seattle's underground to the docks of the Far North, from the hideaways of the southern swamps to the storied reaches of the Great Offshore Grounds, Vanessa Veselka spins a tale with boundless verve, linguistic vitality, and undeniable tenderness.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

★ 06/22/2020

Veselka (Zazen) returns with a sprawling work of astonishing depth and scope about three siblings contending with poverty in the Pacific Northwest. Half-sisters Livy and Cheyenne, both 33, were told a “fairy tale” by their father, Cyril, when they grew up, that one of their mothers wanted children and the other wanted to chase the North Star, and both got what they wanted without marrying him. Veselka opens on Cyril’s first late-in-life wedding, which the sisters, both broke and with no love for Cyril, attend for the free food and drink. They reunite with Kirsten, a biological mother to one of them, who raised both sisters and Essex, their adopted cab-driving brother. Cyril gives them information about the other mother, Ann, who agreed with Kirsten to let her raise both daughters, provided Kirsten not reveal the details of who belonged to which mother. The sisters drive to Boston, hoping to find Ann, but strike out. Livy then heads to Alaska, where she becomes a sailor’s apprentice and protests offshore drilling; Cheyenne continues to pursue Ann; and Essex, desperately lacking direction, enlists in the Marines. Meanwhile, Kirsten gets a terminal cancer diagnosis and summons them for a reconciliation. Veselka blends fascinating details of seamanship, cab driving, and boot camp with intimate, spot-on descriptions of contemporary American poverty, such as Cheyenne being shuttled to the couch to make room for Airbnb guests when she’s late on rent and selling plasma. This gritty and unsentimental work is compassionate, funny, and deeply human. (Aug.)

From the Publisher

Deeply moving . . . [Veselka] is a remarkable writer, able to break through the surfaces of her narrative to reveal the animal chaos underneath . . . In its way, that merciless truth of the universe represents a sort of mercy, and it makes The Great Offshore Grounds a saga of acceptance, which is to say a book of life.” 
—David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times

“Vivid . . . The portrayal of the choices one must make when living paycheck to paycheck in late capitalist America is realistic and devastating . . . The deeply moving and nuanced mother narrative is a rewarding journey in itself . . . Veselka is a talented writer, with sensual imagery and an unflinching ability to stick with troubled and troublesome characters.” 
—Sarah Neilson, The Seattle Times

“Animating . . . Kirsten, Livy, Cheyenne, and Essex’s subsequent misadventures are compelling in and of themselves, irrespective of whether they serve to highlight the rapacity of unchecked neoliberalism or the growing hole in America’s social safety net. Rather than subordinate her protagonists’ experiences to a larger narrative, Veselka patiently waits for a chance to make a connection between one and the other . . . In Veselka’s telling, however, the story is in fact about [vulnerable Americans] — and, with the necessary adjustments, countless other underprivileged men and women caught up in a system that has little use for their kind.”
—Rayyan Al-Shawaf, The Boston Globe

“Two words: feminist picaresque. Not enough? Fine, 14 more words: Witches, boot camp, road trip, Alaskan fishing vessel, estranged father, secrets, swamp, tornado, sex. This is a twisty, chunky yarn of a novel engineered for total absorption."
—Vulture, "The 10 Best Books of 2020"

“A magnificent beast of a novel. Utterly engrossing. Original. One of the rare novels that understands the realities of American poverty. Epic.” 
Roxane Gay, author of Difficult Women 

"The Great Offshore Grounds reminded me of what a great novel can do—Veselka's seafaring epic has the forward momentum of a grand adventure and the spiraling depth of a new myth. All the pleasure of eighteenth century storytelling renewed for our newborn millennium. I love this textured, tonally complex wonder of a book, a quest for Melville's 'unimaginable sublimity' that never shies away from the messy flux of the body, or the oceanic scope of our shared global history. It's also a blast to read—darkly hilarious, astral, cerebral, suspenseful, warm-blooded, divine." 
—Karen Russell, author of Orange World

"I immediately fell in love with the phenomenal sisters at the heart of Vanessa Veselka's supernova of a new novel, The Great Offshore Grounds. This novel is thrilling in its content, daring in heart, and makes a helix between a novel of ideas and the best damn story of women who forge their identities on their own terms that I've read in years."
—Lidia Yuknavitch, author of Verge

"The Great Offshore Grounds delivers on the promise Vanessa Veselka made with her excellent debut, Zazen. Large in scope and heart, Veselka skillfully illustrates human behaviors of every shade and iteration. She’s a specialist, a keen interpreter of our demented society, and an enviable storyteller. I’ve been waiting long years for this novel. It was worth the wait." 
—Patrick deWitt, author of French Exit

"Vanessa Veselka is an expert portraitist of the forgotten and left behind, people struggling to make ends meet, broke and underemployed, people of deep humanity and shallow finances trying to find their place in dysfunctional America. The Great Offshore Grounds is an unforgettable journey through a country full of malice and greed and beauty and grace. A brilliant and fearless book." 
—Nathan Hill, author of The Nix

"Vanessa Veselka writes with the power of the ocean tides, and The Great Offshore Grounds teems with life as beguiling and beautiful as any undersea grotto. This novel is warmhearted and coldblooded and I’ll never forget Livy and Cheyenne and their fierce bond and bottomless wonder. Neither will you."     
—Peter Geye, author of Northernmost

"The Great Offshore Grounds is a binge-worthy, kaleidoscopic, twenty-first century American family odyssey. Vanessa Veselka spins a radical, delicious, epic tale of women blasting their way forward to free themselves of the past. Her characters play by no rules but their own and they pull you in with oceans of black humor and so much heart." 
—Andrea Kleine, author of Eden 

"The Great Offshore Grounds blew me away. The tangled journeys of three siblings in the hardest of times pursuing freedom and love through a broken world will both move and dazzle readers. Wry, epic, glorious." 
—Emma Donoghue, author of Akin

“This is a novel that feels like hitchhiking: The route is unpredictable but fated and exciting, with an air of treachery. If you relate to the idea of desperate people doing desperate things for reasons only partly clear to themselves, you will find it thrilling.” 
—Molly Young, Vulture

“Astonishing depth and scope . . . Veselka blends fascinating details of seamanship, cab driving, and boot camp with intimate, spot-on descriptions of contemporary American poverty . . . This gritty and unsentimental work is compassionate, funny, and deeply human.” 
Publishers Weekly (starred) 

“Energetic . . . points of view shift kaleidoscopically, passages of history and politics are woven into the questlike narratives of the characters. The result is a fiery and occasionally luminous chaos that feels true to the experience of those for whom each day is lived at the edges of mainstream society.” 

Kirkus Reviews

A dysfunctional family’s understanding of who they truly are is upended by a long-held secret.

Livy and Cheyenne are sisters in their early 30s, born on the same day to the same father but different mothers. This isn’t the end of their messy family tree: Raised together by Kirsten, one of their birth mothers, Livy and Cheyenne are now “flunk[ing] adulthood.” Newly divorced and jobless, Cheyenne is crashing in her sister’s basement apartment; underemployed Livy is trying to figure out how to get enough money to make ends meet. When the father they haven’t seen in many years reaches out to invite them to his wedding, the sisters attend only to be greeted with a gift: an envelope containing the address of their other birth mother, who abandoned the family when the girls were babies. With the financial help of Essex, their adopted younger brother, Livy and Cheyenne embark on the first of a series of travels in an attempt to find the woman who mothered one of them; back at home, Essex and Kirsten undertake journeys of their own. In the process, the anti-authoritarian quartet grapple with their desires to be washed “clean of history” at the same time they understand the parts they play in the tangle of the others’ lives and the larger story of America. Veselka takes a kitchen-sink approach to the novel: Points of view shift kaleidoscopically, passages of history and politics are woven into the questlike narratives of the characters. The result is a fiery and occasionally luminous chaos that feels true to the experiences of those for whom each day is lived at the edges of mainstream society.

An energetic, if messy, examination of the push and pull between freedom and belonging.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525658078
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/25/2020
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 94,782
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.60(d)

Read an Excerpt


The Wedding
Fifteen miles south of Seattle and halfway across Puget Sound to the west is Maury Island. Shaped like an arrowhead aimed at the mainland, green as the inner fold of a grass blade, it can be seen from the air cradled in the crook of an elbow of water. Tourists ride over on ferries to watch for whales and UFOs. Jets turn around overhead on their final approach to the airport. Even on days when there is no rain, mist filters through the evergreens until it pulls apart like threadbare cloth and burns off.
The wedding was to be held in the afternoon at Point Robinson, the site of an old fog-signal station that once housed a steam whistle fed by coal fire and water to warn away ships. In 1897, at the dawn of massive capital expansion and speculation, the whistle sounded for five hundred and twenty-eight hours, nearly killing the man who had to shovel the thirty-five tons of coal. The cargo had to be kept from the rocks, but who can halt the lumbering desires of the world?
In 1915, the lighthouse with its state-of-the-art, fifth-order Fresnel lens was built. Powered initially by oil vapor lamps, its beacon could be seen for twelve miles. The lens was the perfect manifestation of Victorian technology, replacing simple flat lenses with faceted, crystal domes, prisms cut into tiers that made it both astonishingly beautiful and a breakthrough in optics. The Fresnel lens had a theoretically infinite capacity to capture diffuse light and, by way of internal reflection, cast it like a spear through darkness. It lit stages and celluloid, Polaroid shots and retinas for ID scans, and on Point Robinson, it lit Puget Sound.
These days, every modern ship has a GPS and the little lighthouse is just a decoration on a brochure, a destination for a grade-school field trip. The mechanisms that rotated the original lantern remain on the first floor, which is now a tiny museum of technology with gauges and wheels and iron bolted into the base with lines that lead nowhere and do nothing.
Back across the sound in Seattle, Livy looked out the window of her basement apartment. Her father was getting married that afternoon, and though it was already late April, a cold, wet breeze still whistled through the gaps in the caulking turning her skin to goose-flesh. A few feet away stood her sister, Cheyenne, poorly slept but already dressed.
“I’m freezing,” said Cheyenne.
“I’m turning on the space heater.”
“Turn on the oven. They charge us for electricity,” Livy said.
Cheyenne rolled her eyes but went over to the little white gas stove. Cranking the temperature to broil, she leaned back against the oven door so she could feel the heat on her hamstrings while the oven warmed.
Yesterday they’d spent the whole day picking rocks out of Livy’s landlord’s garden in trade for a patch of soil near the sunny side of the fence so that Livy could grow food. It wasn’t political. Livy didn’t care about pesticides or permaculture. She was just the cheapest person Cheyenne had ever known. She lived off past-date groceries. She washed her clothes once a month with a teaspoon of dish soap in a tub. She made her own bras. Cheyenne was pretty sure she would have rinsed and reused dental dams if she thought it would work. Recently, Livy had become convinced she could feed herself off three square yards of land. It was ridiculous, but since Cheyenne had appeared out of nowhere and moved in on her without warning or rent, she didn’t have much of a say.
Taller and unfreckled, Cheyenne had chosen a rose-colored capped-sleeve shirt with eyelets and a pair of black pinstriped suit pants. She could pass in the crowd they’d be in today. Her secondhand clothes came off as vintage, while her misadventures in body art made her seem a fine vase, badly cracked and chipping but a gritty accent to any room.
“Cyril didn’t come to my wedding,” Cheyenne said. “Why should I go to his?”
“Did you invite him?”
“Hell no. He would have arrived like a lord and expected to walk me down the aisle. Here. Let me give you away. Oh hey Dad, I’m pretty sure you did that.”
“You’re right. He would have,” said Livy.

“So why are we even going?”

“I have a day off work and it’s cheaper than a movie. I’m tired of ramen and hot dogs and there’ll be rich-people food so I’m taking Tupperware.”
“Please don’t make it obvious,” said Cheyenne. “We’re already going to look so out of place.”
“Because you have jailhouse tats of hearts and clubs on your knuckles? Or because I don’t shave and look like a landscaper?”
Cheyenne spread the fingers of her left hand. “Not just clubs and hearts. The one on my thumb is a diamond and the pinkie is a spade. You just can’t tell anymore.”
Livy crossed to where she’d laid out her newly washed blue painter’s pants and pulled them on over her long johns. “I’m going to the wedding because it’s a show of support that costs me nothing. I have never thought of him as a dad so I don’t care. At his worst he’s just a big blank. A disappointment. He gets a clean slate. That’s my wedding present. A pass. It’s the only decent move.”
“I shot my better angels,” said Cheyenne.

“They’re angels. You can’t kill them.”

“If they were real you could.”

Livy could feel Cheyenne’s eyes burning holes in her ribs. She zipped her fly and flattened her pockets.
“I have clothes if you want to borrow something,” said Cheyenne.
Livy froze for a second then bent down to roll the cuffs, making sure they were perfectly even on both sides and all the way around. “I have a white shirt. It has buttons. I can tuck it in,” she said.
“What do you think his bride will be like?” asked Cheyenne.
“A full-blown voodoo narcissist like him.”

“He couldn’t take the competition. I predict Anglo geisha.”
“I can see that,” said Livy.
“We should at least get drunk before we go.”

“I’d rather do it on his dime,” said Livy.

“I bet inviting us isn’t even his idea. I’ll bet it’s the bride’s.”
Livy smiled. “Maybe he has cancer and his doctor warned him that guilt suppresses the immune system.”

Cheyenne propelled herself off the stove with her back foot.
“Yes!” she said. “No.” She held up her hand. “Wait,” she said, “I have it. He found God . . . and God said unto him,” Cheyenne threw her arms wide and boomed, “Stop being such a dick! A dick, a dick, dick . . . echo, echo, echo . . .”

Neither sister had seen their father since they were fourteen. The wedding invitation had arrived only two weeks before the date of the ceremony, just on the heels of Cheyenne’s reappearance, something their mother, Kirsten, considered prophetic. It was obvious from the short window that the decision to include them was, at best, the result of a long debate or, at worst, an afterthought. Their initial instinct had been to ignore it and the invitation was repurposed as a coaster for days before it was seriously considered. But in the end they could not ignore it. It tapped at a hidden door . . . Shh . . .he is a king in a castle; he has only stashed us away in the village to keep us safe; someday he will call for us, claim us, and make everything right.
“I kind of understand why we’re going to the wedding,” said Cheyenne, “but why is Mom going?”
“For her own reasons.”

“Without a doubt.”

Livy’s eyes met Cheyenne’s for a second then moved to the clock. “What time is Mom picking you up?” she asked.
A car honked outside.
“Now,” said Cheyenne.
Kirsten’s twenty-year-old Toyota was stopped in the middle of the street with the hazards on blocking half the road. She was wearing a black velvet camisole with a long black skirt and black cardigan. There was a ring on every finger and totemic silver jewelry hung around her neck. Tiny zircon studs pierced the indigo blue sun and the crescent moon tattooed on her earlobes. Cheyenne took one look at her and knew that her mother was totally prepared to make an awkward situation more awkward.
“Get in or we’ll miss the ferry,” said Kirsten.

The dashboard of Kirsten’s car rattled with the engine.

“Keep the window rolled down,” she said. “The defroster doesn’t work.”

Kirsten and Cheyenne hadn’t spent any time alone since Cheyenne returned so Cheyenne had agreed they would go out to the wedding together, while Livy rode in with their brother, Essex. The minute Cheyenne got into the car, though, she regretted it. Kirsten had questions. About Cheyenne’s failed marriage. About its aftermath. About Cheyenne’s spiritual analysis of this moment in her life. Cheyenne tried to change the subject to one of Kirsten’s many interests—domestic violence legislation, her coven, what books she was reading—but it always turned back to Cheyenne’s psyche and the archetypal trauma that must be feeding her cycles of disintegration. Cheyenne told her mother she was tired and pretended to sleep but Kirsten talked anyway.
“You’re a mystic by nature,” Kirsten said as they drove onto the ferry. “You’re drawn to shadowlands.”
Cheyenne rolled over and fell into a deep fake nap.
When they arrived, Kirsten went to find out where they were supposed to park. She saw Cyril, dressed in white, in the distance by the edge of the water. Walking over, Kirsten noted that his black hair was still long in front and combed behind his ears as it had been when she’d first met him, a rail-thin twenty-four-year-old holding forth about social norms and Hesse, quoting the Dalai Lama. It had all turned out to be plumage.
She’d never held him to any kind of child support outside the occasional hospital bill, but recently her attitude about that shifted. She didn’t expect anything out of him, but maybe the girls should. She wasn’t sure. Cyril was one of those rich people who viewed his wealth as the natural fruit of his spiritual voyage.
The rain had stopped but the air was chilled and her shoes were wet by the time she reached him.
Cyril kissed her on both cheeks.

“Thanks for coming early,” he said.

“You said you had something for the girls.”

“Yes, but not now. I’ve set aside time before things get too hectic,” he said.

Kirsten watched a large foamy wave burst into a white star on the rocks behind him.

“I’m not young anymore,” she said. “I could have cancer or drop dead of some zoonotic disease and you’d be their only blood relative.”
He smiled. “I have faith in your immune system.”
“Won’t save me from getting hit by a bus or shot by some teenager with an AR-15.”
“That’s a little dramatic,” he said.

She eyed him without expression, then laughed.

“I just hope it’s good,” she said. “Whatever you’re giving them. Like a house. Or an education.”

He turned to the water. Facing the sound, the breeze caught his hair.

He raised his hand to point at something and Kirsten walked off. Such a fucking Leo. Returning to the car, she knocked on the window to rouse Cheyenne.

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