Once the Lusitania sets sail from N.Y. to Liverpool, Butler's competent fact/fiction reconstruction starts briskly steaming...



Once the Lusitania sets sail from N.Y. to Liverpool, Butler's competent fact/fiction reconstruction starts briskly steaming along to the built-in horrors of the finale--but readers will first have to wade through 300 pages of deadly slow water-treading. The primary focus of this plodding first half: Walter Schwieger, the German U-boat commander who will eventually, ambivalently sink the Lusitania--a moody sort with secret cowardice (despite his heroics), bad dreams from U-boat terrors, and a new love affair with showgirl Anneliese. But, though there's strong potential in the idea of a U-boat hero for a Lusitania novel, Butler has little talent for imaginative characterization: Schwieger remains a dreary cipher through his many pre-Lusitania exploits. (Most engaging: an unscheduled stop in Ireland for repairs.) Stodgy, too, are Butler's preliminary historical vignettes--with all the politics behind the War Zone declaration, stiff glimpses of assorted world leaders, and undeveloped activities by German spies. And there's the predictable, rather hokey sampling of embarking passengers and crew, a fact/ fiction potpourri: the ship-loving, ultra-dedicated captain; theater giant Charles Frohman, sorry to be parted from beloved Maude Adams; Alfred Vanderbilt, depressed over a wasted life; Canadian engineer Matt and wife Livvy (who's furious about Matt's enlistment plans); a newlywed couple; a widow going home to family; etc. Once on board, however, things do pick up considerably--as the nicely evoked shipboard camaraderie is contrasted with the approaching doom of the U-boat destined (with some help from hawkish German higher-ups) to cross the passenger liner's path off the Irish coast. The decision-making dilemmas of the two commanders (Do Schwieger's standing orders really require him to fire at this civilian ship? Should the Lusitania captain try to outrace the U-boat?) are made vividly parallel. And, in the final 100 pages, Buffer makes the sentimental, melodramatic most of the surefire windup: the ship is torpedoed; the lifeboats are a disaster; Matt and Livvy search the sinking ship for their children; Frohman and Vanderbilt exeunt with class (""I cannot swim, but at least I can die a gentleman""); the carnage is dreadful; and orders-following Schwieger ends up in disgrace, without Anneliese. All in all, then: a sturdy enough mock-up, with special interest for U-boat aficionados--but slow, uninspired going much of the way, with neither vivid fictional characters nor the You-Are-There power of a thoroughgoing non-fiction treatment.

Pub Date: Jan. 3, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1982