Excerpt from Spectacular Happiness by Peter D. Kramer, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Spectacular Happiness

by Peter D. Kramer

Spectacular Happiness
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2001, 320 pages
    Jun 2002, 320 pages

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I had been there in the construction phase. Anyone on the Cape who could swing a hammer had been there. Part of the fun of building, for Giampiccolo, was fighting with contractors and firing them, unpaid. Then he would flog the next hapless fellow to speed the schedule, to the point where all sorts of incompetents were hired including, for a brief stint, your father. No one person was on the job for long. I had not seen the inside of the finished house until Sukey took me there.

She brought me on a blustery September afternoon, unseasonably cold, the kind of day your mother could not abide. The tide was low, and we could see the perches and groynes scarring the flats. Those were the names my father used for them -- sunken posts and boards crisscrossing the beach below the high-tide mark, holding sand and slowing erosion. You may remember the truck tires people on Harm's Way set in front of the dunes -- marsh grass grew in them. You and I used to gather the mussels that attached themselves to the tires, and the occasional oyster in the grass. After you left, the Audubon group sued to have the tires removed, on the grounds that they trapped sand that should have swept northward toward the piping-plover nesting grounds. Same thing -- perches and groynes. Ways for a man to hold sand in front of his home while starving the downcurrent beach.

Nationally, Giampiccolo became known because his house went down in spectacular fashion and because he was nowhere to be found. But the local story, like every story on Cape Cod, concerned real estate. Here, Giampiccolo was famous for getting permission to build perches and groynes at a time when neighbors were fighting losing battles to erect a seawall. There's the real measure of power in America, winning the right to mess with nature.

In the early nineties, Giampiccolo bought a plot of unbuildable land on the Sesuit beachfront, a long, wide strip of dune. Then he hired engineers and lawyers to say the dune was not a dune but a sandbank and therefore buildable, and more engineers and lawyers to say the septic systems would not affect the bay, and then architects and lawyers to say that height restrictions should not apply since he was reproducing a structure of historic importance, a Victorian building that had once graced the King's Highway at the Sesuit crossroads. What was rumored must surely have been true, that Giampiccolo's finagling was enhanced by bribes and corrupt promises and, when necessary, strong-arm tactics. In the end, Giampiccolo had permission to build a seafront monstrosity and a seawall to protect it -- an ecological and aesthetic nightmare, complete with perches and groynes the lawyers claimed as an ancient right attaching to the property.

I don't suppose Sukey felt moral outrage at Giampiccolo's having skirted communal rules. She was a realtor, she had seen it all. As for me, I had been too well schooled in political skepticism to worry over planning boards. I assume laws will favor the rich or be broken by them. But it is true that I did not like to see the beach scarred, did not like seeing a selfish man's imprint on what should belong to all of us in common.

Unfair, I protested. I was referring not to the perches and groynes but to Sukey's marching me past them, knowing how they would disturb me. She answered by wrapping her arms around mine and sliding her hands into my coat pockets. Funny, how a woman can slip a hand into yours and mean almost anything by it. Your mother would press up against me when we walked on cold days. With Anais -- that was how your mother used to spell her name -- the gesture asked why I had brought her to a home where the elements are harsh. Sukey's hands say only, we share. Warmth, adventures. Like musketeers, all for one and one for all. My pockets are her pockets; she takes without asking.

Come along, Chip, she said. Can't a body take you for a stroll?

Two hummocks of dune met at the beach side of the Giampiccolo house. Stairs ran between them. The beach juts eastward at that point. As you walk up the strand from the cottage, you round the bend and disappear from view. That was one of many promising aspects to the Giampiccolo site. From any distance, there was no way to see me enter or leave. What characterizes successful gambles is favorable odds. Sukey is a master gambler.

Copyright © 2001 by Peter D. Kramer

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