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Books: The Cruel Sea

3 minute read
John Skow



700 pages. Putnam. $12.95.

It is not hard to find fault with this voluminous first novel of brutality at sea. Joseph Conrad and John Dos Passes, writing in shifts, might have been able to handle its alternating themes: the oppression of sailors during a perilous voyage from New York around Cape Horn to San Francisco, and the near dissolution of U.S. society into class war preceding the presidential election of 1896. The first 50 pages show that Author Sterling Hayden, movie star turned writer, has little hope of bringing his book under artistic control.

Full-rigged Monster. Yet by the last chapter even a skeptical reader should have a fair measure of respect for the author. The core of his novel is a good cautionary tale, and it is clear that Hayden, who in 1963 wrote Wanderer, a nonfiction account of his maritime adventures, is no stranger to the sea. It is in the explications of bygone politics and economics that his Voyage is becalmed for long periods. Happily, the same does not hold true for the four-masted bark Neptune’s Car. The steel-hulled vessel beats around the Horn with a cargo of smoldering coal. Its crew, as was customary, is a forecastle full of alcoholics, shanghaied by waterfront “crimps.” Kidnaping of able-bodied seamen was a routine necessity, Hayden reports: wages were $1 a day and the hard-driving officers were licensed bullies who regularly committed mayhem and murder.

The Car is populated with a standard cast — tyrants and victims familiar to viewers of the Late Show. Its captain, “Irons” Saul Pendleton, is a bit less bestial than the average; but the man-slaughtering first mate, Otto Lassiter, is one of nature’s full-rigged monsters. The mate is more than a Caliban thrown in by the author for dramatic effect; as Hayden makes clear, such men were indeed sought out by captains, and prized for their lethal efficiency.

Outrage rises from the men — and from the prose — and it continually buoys Voyage. Hayden is offended that things as splendid as ships, and the sea they sail on, are polluted by avarice. Yet for a moralist with a case to make, he stays commendably free of melodrama and polemic. It is clear that his seamen need to unite, but the organizers in the book are ineffective, and there is no vacuous optimism; a seafarers’ union cannot (and did not) miraculously end greed or brutality.

The novel’s heft and subject suggest a routine costume epic. But stripped of its ornaments, Voyage is in fact a rather somber study of the human condition. The story’s most fully drawn seaman, a seething 50-year-old giant named Harwar, plans to dynamite Car after it reaches the States. In the book’s terms, the scheme seems justifiable. Harwar is strong, and though he is an alcoholic, he has been off the sauce for seven months. He stays sober for nearly two weeks more in San Francisco as he waits to wreck the vessel. But Hayden is a rueful realist, and the book’s conclusion allows no romantic vengeance. The great, evil ship still floats, Harwar is stony drunk, and he and his dreams of social justice drift off on the tidal rip. John Skow

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