Sunday, December 28, 2003
Charting depths of emotion
1860 Arctic voyage explores dark recesses of men's souls
By Robin Vidimos
Special to The Denver Post
Tales of whaling, sailing and exploration are high-interest literary fare.
The shelves (and best-seller lists) are full of books including "The
Perfect Storm : A True Story of Men Against the Sea' and "Blue Latitudes,'
nonfiction firmly rooted in historical record. These works are long on
telling what happened but understandably short on revealing why the men
involved were driven to such risks. Such an impersonal approach is fitting
for factual accounts; raw emotional truths are best explored through fiction.
"The Rope Eater' does exactly the latter. This story of an Arctic
journey, set in the 1860s, provides plenty of realistic chill. But what
sets this novel apart from its many adventuring cousins is the stark insight
with which debut author Ben Jones charts the emotional journey of his
narrator, Brendan Kane. Advertisement
It is Kane's imagination, greater than that of his small-town parents,
that leads him to enlist as a foot soldier in the Union Army. But the
fields of dead soldiers, remnants of someone's victory, kill his dreams
of glory. By the time he deserts, all he knows is that he must escape
the carnage. After passing through New York City, he finds his way to
the whaling town of New Bedford.
He is approached by Capt. Griffin and asked to join the crew of the Narthex.
She's not a whaler, by the looks of her, and neither is she manned by
a whaling crew. Most of her crew are former prisoners who find the offer
by Mr. West, the trip's benefactor, more attractive than a jail cell.
It is an offer that works for rudderless Kane, as well: two years of hard
work in the isolation of the Arctic north, with a possibility of a big
payout at the end of the journey.
A church narthex is a place where the faithful gather before entering
into worship, and the Narthex is a vessel on which the unwashed gather
before embarking on adventure. The goal of the voyage is not clear. Some
crew members envision mining riches, others believe they are off to discover
a lake full of whales. The possible reward, though, seems less a motivation
for this crew than the simple escape from their unpleasant realities.
The man in charge of the voyage is also a misfit, no small achievement
in the world of merchant sailors. Capt. Griffin seems capable, though
he confines his three-handed boiler-tender, Aziz, below decks, presumably
because of his deformity. The real director of the voyage is Dr. Architeuthis,
a man as mysterious as the giant squid that is his namesake.
The voyage starts smoothly enough; the men fall into the expected routines.
But as fall rolls into winter and the sunlight disappears, the voyage
becomes more difficult. Kane does not ally himself with either of the
crew's groups, preferring instead to spend time in the boiler room talking
with Aziz. It is from Aziz that he hears the tale, one of desperation
and the cost of survival, that gives "The Rope Eater' its title.
As the ship pushes north, Architeuthis becomes more absorbed in the work
of gathering and evaluating scientific samples and in charting their course.
The discovery of a log of tropical hardwood on an ice floe confirms the
purpose of the journey. The men are headed north in search of a land of
tropical beauty, an impossible paradise thought to be hidden among the
northern glacier fields. It is a goal that is never questioned, driven
only by the doctor's obsessive dedication to his cause.
When the ship is caught in ice, the crew is forced to abandon ship. Like
the rope eater of Aziz's tale, the men are driven to impossible lengths
to survive. The result is hardly a pretty story, but in Jones' capable
hands, it is one that rings true. The sound of the ice crystals battering
against a tarp, the sight of gangrenous limbs and the nearly blind determination
of men pushed beyond any reasonable or understandable limit come together
in a powerful tale.
Jones does not drive his character's actions, but he is a writer with
a firm hand. Kane wastes no narrative breath, though his grasp on sanity
comes to seem no stronger than that of his mates as the story plays out.
"The Rope Eater' comes to fruition as a fantastic tale and one in
which the participants go to unbelievable lengths, not because of a survival
instinct but because of an instinct that drives a thirst for something
more. What exactly that something is differs from person to person. One
sailor hopes the riches will help him settle away from the sea to raise
rabbits. Both Mr. West and Dr. Architeuthis long for an individualized
kind of fame. Perhaps Kane only wants to reclaim his dreams.
Each detail is expertly selected with an eye to completing a stunning
whole. Under this guise of an adventure story, Jones leads his readers
on an exploration of the dark corners of men's souls. The resulting sight
is not pretty, but it is as understandable as it is compelling.
Robin Vidimos is a freelance writer who reviews books for The Denver Post
and Buzz in the 'Burbs.