There’s no rock ’n’ roll and just a few mentions of drugs in Nanci E. LaGarenne’s new novel, “Cheap Fish,” but it’s all about Montauk and has sex, salty language, intrigue, and a murder mystery, all aboard a high-class floating brothel called the Lily Virginia in the middle of the ocean.
The characters were not based on real people but may carry the qualities of some or a few rolled into one, Ms. LaGarenne said. Readers, though, are having a lot of fun wondering who’s who from the Montauk bar scene, mostly Liars’ Saloon, which plays a central role in the book.
Ms. LaGarenne and her husband, James, a retired helicopter pilot with the New York Police Department, started performing karaoke 12 years ago in and around the hamlet, and in that time Ms. LaGarenne picked up a lot of information. While her husband worked the microphone, she worked the crowd, and once people got to know her, their secrets started spilling out.
“They knew I wasn’t a gossip so they felt comfortable talking to me,” she said on Friday at a picnic table at Liars’, a late-night hangout popular with fishermen and locals. It overlooks Lake Montauk in the harbor area.
“Someone told me I should hang up a shingle. You can’t make this stuff up,” she said of what she has learned in the bar scene.
When they told her their fish tales and complained about government regulations threatening the industry, she tucked it all away. One day, she was sitting with her brother-in-law while he cleaned his fishing tackle. As he was explaining what a lure is, he playfully asked her if she had ever heard of a floating brothel, and claimed to know the captain of one. At the time, she was planning on writing a novel about the karaoke scene, but once she heard about that, she knew it was a good idea for a book.
When her husband retired, the couple decided to move full time to East Hampton. Before they started the karaoke, Ms. LaGarenne had worked as a teacher’s aide in special education and looked for a job out here in a local school, to no avail. She worked several other jobs in town and ended up employed at an insurance agency. “I was a fish out of water,” she said.
Growing up she wrote poetry, mostly about teenage angst. She has tinkered with other books, none of which have yet been published. She started writing “Cheap Fish” in 2007. Since she doesn’t feel a connection with computers, she writes in longhand before entering it into one. What with her husband’s comments, the book went through several edits. An agent or publisher couldn’t be found, so she turned to CreateSpace, a self-publishing arm of Amazon.com. The book hit store shelves in March, and she has already had to restock the Montauk stores.
The book is about a grizzled but (this being fiction) really good-looking 65-year-old fisherman known and liked by locals. Starting to feel his age, he knows he should slow down a bit, but the “pull of the sea” is like a magnet to him. In Liars’ one night, he meets by a guy locals call a “tree hugger,” meaning a guy with a fancy boat and a hedge fund. He approaches the older fisherman with a proposal to start a high-class brothel aboard a boat in international waters off Montauk to avoid regulation.
Once the two join forces they realize they need a captain, one who can keep his mouth shut. They choose a “sporty,” a sportfisherman who visits on weekends. But though the sporty is good at staying quiet about the venture, he isn’t good at keeping his hands off the merchandise, namely the New York City hookers hired to work the vessel.
When a physical therapist decides to join the Mermaids, as the hookers are called, the boat captain initiates her by raping her. He finds out the hard way that he picked on the wrong girl. The mystery comes in when he is “gutted like a fish” by an unknown killer.
Ms. LaGarenne credits a Montauk fisherman, Donny D’Albora, in the acknowledgment section, saying the book wouldn’t have been possible without his lowdown on commercial fishing. She met with him several times and taped his stories. Mr. D’Albora’s picture as a youngster on a dock with a giant tuna even graces the cover. “He taught me the technical aspects of fishing,” she said.
After 12 years of spinning tunes, the LaGarennes have retired from the karaoke gig. They want to spend their weekends at home with each other. She is busy editing another novel that is already written called “The Refuge,” about domestic violence.
“Cheap Fish” is available in Montauk at White’s Drug and Department Store and the Montauk Marine Basin, and at the Gone Local gallery in Amagansett. It can also be purchased through Amazon.com.