Story dated November 15, 2004

A book review? In Pinball News?

OK, I admit it's not something we do very often but there is some reasoning behind it.

Anthony Weller's The Siege of Salt Cove is a novel set in the Massachusetts village of the same name and it describes the events leading to its eventual secession from the United States.

Salt Cove is a tranquil, sleepy little coastal resort with a proud history and a desire to stave off change. So when the state declares its intention to tear down the much-loved 19th century wooden bridge on safety grounds and replace it with a modern concrete monstrosity, the villagers are stirred into action.

The events are recalled in a series of memoirs by the main protagonists on all sides, peppered with contributions from peripheral characters.

Chief amongst the leaders are Jessica Stoddard and Toby Auberon. One, a sprightly lady of leisure who belies her seventy-two years, the other a former Californian public prosecutor turned defender who battles against his better judgement to defend the village against the combined might of the local council, the state and finally the special forces.

Toby escaped the hothouse of Californian law, fled to Rio and a hippie lifestyle before taking up residence in the village's lighthouse as a semi-recluse and suspected drunk, while secretly dedicating himself to the project he houses on the upper floor. Through their joint efforts to preserve the bridge, long-time resident Jessica falls deeply in love
with Toby, a relative newcomer only slightly more than half her age who only reluctantly returns her affections. She becomes fascinated with him and is determined to discover the secret, finally sneaking into the lighthouse and up the stairs.

For four years, Toby had been developing, creating, nurturing the ultimate pinball machine. His Machina Excelsior.

Called Xibalba, it is based on an ancient mystical Mesoamerican ball game between the kings of the mortals and the immortals from the underworld. Every element from the pop bumpers to the drop targets has been the subject of stringent design and perfecting until it functioned flawlessly. Slowly, the Machina has grown from sheets of wood to the state of near completion we find in the lighthouse.

Jessica and Toby are further bonded when he discovers, hidden in her garage, her deceased father's pinball machine; A 1933 Pacific Amusement game - Contact . He repairs it and teaches Jessica how to play, never telling her about his own obsession.

The Xibalba game itself has a two level playfield, the upper level being the ball game arena while below is a much more treacherous playfield that is only revealed when the player completes shoots a seemingly impossible sink hole in the upper level, an allegory for the living world and the underworld.

Toby Auberon is in no doubt about the task facing him in creating his Machina. "No fortunate Bally man fifty years ago, working on a design team, had to compete as I do. I am up against an entirely new mode of thought that has entered the world since the first bagatelles of two centuries ago: I am trying to turn back the clock, to exchange the visual illusion of a computer game for the actual world of ball and machine, to replace the up-to-the-minute with the supposedly obsolete."

Toby's recollections are scattered with pinball references. After all, it is the project to which he had dedicated a major part of his life. A project he is forced to set aside while Salt Cove needs his help.

Ultimately, the game is never completed in the time span of the story but we are left hoping it will get there in the end.

Weller's use of different characters to tell their own segments of the story quickly familiarises us with their personalities and quirks. Some may only talk for a few pages and some speak posthumously but their insights and perspectives break up the narrative and move focus from the village and its bridge to the people affected by its impending destruction.

The subject matter is not new of course and there are many similarities both in story and style with Tom Sharpe's Blott On The Landscape but the novel remains fresh, darkly comic and the characters believable.

In the end, by looking beyond the immediate impact to the wider motives for the state's actions, the village wins a stoic victory and fades out of public consciousness as quickly as it grew. But the events leave their mark on both the landscape and the residents, many of whom lose far more than they gain.

The Siege of Salt Cove is available now in hardback and will be out in paperback from May.


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