Crash Barry's Tough Island needed a full complement of outsized characters and picaresque settings to bring its adventurous tale to life. And though he was dealing in non-fiction, he apparently had little or no trouble finding them. Set two decades ago on Matinicus - at twenty miles offshore, the furthermost inhabited island in Penobscot Bay - his memoir of a young man working on a lobster boat as "part slave, part indentured servant . . ." is full of such personalities and well-depicted locales, both of which are bound to resonate with many Midcoast Maine readers.

Here's Barry on the island's inhabitants: "Over time, the archetypes revealed themselves: the angel, the hero, the loner, the drunk, the cheater, the molester, the abuser, the thief, the suicide and the killer." And about the island itself: ". . . Matinicus was an outlaw's paradise, where hardened souls could lurk in the shadows of fishhouses and wharves, far from the watchful police state. . . . For other islanders, Matinicus was a protected homeport and an idyllic place to raise a family. An outpost where independence was necessary and honored, but where working with others - even sworn enemies - was occasionally required to save a life or livelihood."

From a first-day misadventure with his new captain's loaned Hondamatic - a slapstick scene which deftly characterizes a narrator who is somehow both cynical and earnest - to a risk-your-life tryst with a desperately aroused island wife, to a nostalgic and emotional visit back to Matinicus years afterward, Tough Island is a captivating and convincing narrative that manages to be funny, touching and instructive, all at the same time. I wouldn't be surprised if it also manages to be controversial, particularly with regard to some less flattering depictions of island legends, should their true identities be successfully decoded. ("Many names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty," it says in the book's front matter). But Barry is fair; he doesn't neglect to mention either his own failings or the better traits and habits of his adversaries. There's "Captain Donald," for example, who is described at one point as a "racist, sexist, homophobic, polluting curmudgeon" but is also given his due when, after getting tangled in a slithering bight of warp (rope), he is yanked overboard and only avoids a quick and deadly trip to Davey Jones's locker by clinging with superhuman power to the steel bar that runs the length of his boat's transom. "Only his sheer strength and determination," Barry writes of this man whom he despises, "kept him from letting go of the boat" despite suffering a gruesome dislocation of the hip. Captain Donald - though still brusque - also seems more likeable and human when Barry encounters him on the aforementioned return trip to the island. It's almost as if the narrator has grown, and in doing so has gained the ability to see some of the not-so-bad in this rough-edged man.

Barry brings to life many other island characters, like Captain Red, a "lying, stealing, thieving son of a bitch" who was also the most dangerous man on the island; a sheriff's deputy who thinks he's going to bring mainland law to Matinicus (he fails miserably); the young cuckolded stern man who after accusing Barry of being the "other man" drowns himself in the harbor; and the wild and drunken young captain who thinks a shot or two of gunfire might encourage a cowering Barry to come out from behind his locked door and share a shot or two of something else. And then of course there is the narrator himself, a wanna-be writer whose self-admitted literary shortcomings don't prevent him from sitting in his primitive domicile (ramshackle room over his captain's dock, with a hatch for a toilet and a tarp for a door) and banging out "lots of bad poetry and failed short stories," thus starting the process that resulted 20 years later in a talented writer producing a very engaging and well-told book.