The tagline to Rob Kagan’s stunningly written memoir “Noah’s Rejects” is “a cautionary tale about life on an island paradise.” And while sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, it is simultaneously deeply provocative about the serious class struggles on Martha’s Vineyard, and more specifically Chappaquiddick.
This thought-provoking book opens with a hilarious anecdote that immediately conveys the sense of privilege of some of Kagan’s uber-wealthy summer clients for his one-stop-shop caretaking business, Chappy Unlimited. In one excerpt from the book, a woman calls, waking Kagan and his wife out of a sound sleep at 11 pm. She says:
“So, I’m sitting on the toilet with no toilet paper and no way to get to the pantry downstairs. You’re lucky I had my phone on me when I went to the bathroom.”
I’m lucky? I smile as I mentally take in the scene of an irate, fashionable woman … as she sits with her pants around her ankles … “I need you to come over and rectify the situation.”
Are you getting this? Let’s set aside the fact that my employees were at her house five days ago, not “the other day.” Set aside the fact that the housecleaners are not stock boys. Set aside the fact that it’s 11 pm. This woman wants me to drive to her house and fetch her a roll of toilet paper. Her husband is just down the hall.”
So Kagan goes over. And there are plenty more of these immensely amusing scenarios as we learn the very broad range of services Chappy Unlimited comes to provide and the lengths Kagan goes to satisfy their sometimes very strange requests. The book, which covers a single year, is a penetrating look into not just what it’s like to run such a service — and the trials and tribulations of trying to find and keep a reliable workforce and the challenges they face — but also the unseen, complex issues of the lives of those who live on Chappy. They range from idiosyncratic to sad, to a few who are just downright unpleasant. Kagan is a volunteer EMT and firefighter, and a few of the stories can be unnerving, peeling back the curtain on what summer people believe it must be like living year-round in what they perceive as “paradise” when, in fact, problems related to immigration, social dysfunction, alcoholism, suicide, and chronic unreliability lurk not far below. We gain insight too into Chappy-Edgartown politics when the issue of building a designated bike path comes into play, a herculean effort spearheaded by Kagan’s wife after one of their daughters was run off the road by a careless driver and left badly shaken (but fortunately not seriously injured).
Kagan’s empathy toward others shines through the pages, as does his desire to be the best possible boss, dad, husband, and son to his complicated father who lives on Martha’s Vineyard. So too does Kagan’s profound love of the natural beauty of the Island. As the fascinating tale progresses, he and his wife eventually wrestle with leaving. Kagan spoke in an interview about the problem of living in a “fishbowl.” The author notes that you eventually break down and deal with the guy who you know sexually harassed a woman but he’s the only pool guy to answer your phone, and your customer needs him. He said, you figure, OK, but I won’t deal with him socially, yet over time, you start talking again. As a conscientious parent, Kagan explained, “Kids aren’t stupid, they see bad behavior and figure it’s not that big a deal, because my dad is dealing with this guy. So bad behavior gets normalized and perpetuated and feeds on itself. It’s not like you can hire the guy two towns over.”
Kagan wanted to write the book because when they were leaving, his kids, who were 11 and 13, still had this fairytale existence on Chappy. “We wanted to make sure they remembered that,” he said. “But as they got older, I thought they could handle more of the truth so it morphed into more of a cautionary tale so they could see what their parents struggled with.”
The title, “Noah’s Rejects” refers to a design of funky animals he came up with when running a clothing business. Originally the term was a badge of honor for those who proudly didn’t fit in regular society. “But when I started writing, the meaning changed,” Kagan said. “Could we survive off-Island if we wanted to? Were we drawn or pushed here because this is the only place we can survive? Is the moniker a badge of honor, or less so because we have no choice?”
Kagan said he hopes his memoir “starts conversations with Islanders about issues that I felt should be addressed, to start a discussion about why people are having these difficult choices. If normalizing bad behavior is perpetuating bad behavior, can we do something about it? And for the summer people to understand what people like me do to make their lives as easy as possible.”
Compellingly readable, through humor, compassion, and insight, Kagan’s book helps the reader understand the challenges and sacrifices working people who live here year-round make in order to make it such a special place for us all.
“Noah’s Rejects: A Memoir” by Rob Kagan, $17. Available at Bunch of Grapes, Edgartown Books, Katama General Store, and online.
Rob Kagan will be at Bunch of Grapes bookstore on June 15 at 7 pm, Edgartown Books on June 25 at 2 pm, Edgartown library on July 14 at 6 pm, Chappaquiddick Community Center on July 27, and the Vineyard Haven library on August 16.