Dennis Lopez crafts life lessons in ‘Journeyman’


Every once in awhile we run into a book that is so good that we want everyone to read it. “Journeyman: A Tradesman’s Tale” is one of those. It’s a true story of an itinerant carpenter’s life, most happily lived on islands, including this one.

The writing is beautifully crafted, features a lot of understated humour, and is replete with life lessons and insights, many learned at great personal cost to the author and passed on to us in Mr. Lopez’s first book.

Dennis Lopez (né Brennan) lives in Florence, Ore., now, but he spent more than 30 years living and working on New England islands, including Martha’s Vineyard, Block Island, and coastal Maine. Island residents will know Mr. Lopez as the Island’s “window and door” guy and Tisbury planning board member back in the ’90s.

Journeyman is a term used in the trades to describe a person who is on the way to mastering a skill. That takes a while. Mr. Lopez appears well on his way to life mastery. He certainly finished a plumb and smoothly finished book.

He has written straightforwardly about his travel and travails, of losses felt and peace found, in the aftermath of alcoholism and the death of a true-love mate. He is a writer capable of several voices. There’s lyricism (he’s got four chapbooks of poetry), spot-on descriptions of nature and weather and their impact on our well-being, and there are whimsical renderings on the human condition. Think Bill Bryson with a hammer.

The lifeline is that Mr. Lopez grew up in SoCal and New York City, got an English lit. degree from Notre Dame in 1974, and was living in an unsettled state in Providence, R.I., when one day he inexplicably got on the Block Island ferry. When he got there, he stayed for seven years.

It began to come together for him on Block Island. But first he had to learn how to build houses perfectly, without regard to weather, meddling architects, or disagreeable owners. He learned that the work was the reward, and credits a builder he calls Nat Snopes for that learning. (Mr. Snopes waited until late afternoon during the Blizzard of 1978 to call the boys down from a roof under construction.)

Mr. Lopez also had to get married, become a father, get divorced, and become a drunk close to the hopeless variety.

His story is about a man so ill at ease in the culture of his time that he lived outside it, on the fringes, a style that islands hereabouts used to provide. His book is full of observations about the dissonance between fancy living and the values provided by authentic living and precise, hard physical work.

When Block Island became overcrowded, and after stints homebuilding in New Jersey and L.A., Mr. Lopez was fortunate enough to come here in 1989 and to get sober in 1994, five years after he washed ashore.

He was also fortunate enough to beat the Clintons to the Island. In sobriety, he met Kathlene, the love of his life, and they were able to buy a little piece of heaven just before the pricey madness bid up housing costs here. Mr. Lopez lived here for 15 years, settling into his business, even serving on the Tisbury planning board for three years.

His stories about Island living, portraits of its characters and celebrities, including how some get on Island service providers’ invisible blacklist, are the stuff that make us nod and say “Yup, that’s right.” Mr. Lopez uses pseudonyms for most people, though co-workers such as Ernie Goings of Chappaquiddick were pleased to be identified, Mr. Lopez told the Times in a telephone interview recently.

The Lopezes relocated to the Maine coast in 2003 in search of bucolia, and found it, before Kathlene died unexpectedly after a horse-riding accident and Mr. Lopez learned the lessons grief teaches us. “We don’t work through grief. Grief works through us,” he writes. Mr. Lopez delivers his life lessons in a nondramatic, repertorial style that allows us to feel what he feels.

At the top we said this book is a surprise, and part of the pleasure is “A Guide to Practical Remodeling,” a funny and really practical 50-page guide to home construction with a three-page punch list of axioms every nailbanger and DIYer in the world will enjoy and can use.

Here are a couple to whet your whistle:

  • Casement windows are a no-no on the seacoast.
  • Make a mistake in the basement and you’ll find it on the roof.
  • Never use “old brick” for outdoor walkways. It’ll freeze and explode.
  • A good woodstove is the best utility a house can have, but location is critical.
  • Think where the furniture’s going before the light boxes are installed.

Now, you may think I’m gushing in this review, but I’ll tell you what: In addition to good writing and a good yarn, this book about the philosophy of living provides stuff you can actually use to live better, whether you know how to build a house or not.