THE MAN WHO STAYED BELOW by Alan Gould

THE MAN WHO STAYED BELOW

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A literary men-at-sea yarn with lots of salty versimilitude, but one that sails very familiar waters. The narrator is Australian Johnny Boult, who is looking back 20 years--from the depths of the Depression--to the day his 16-year-old former self signed as an apprentice seaman on the Emilia Denholm, one of the last of the clipper ships carrying cargo between Melbourne and London. His innocent romanticism is dampened only a little by the harsh, physical realities of life at sea--it's the bitter, mysterious figure of Captain Trygg who finally awakens him into his coming-of-age. Trygg--dying of cancer, it turns out--stays below in his cabin in a drunken stupor for most of the months-long voyage, emerging only to senselessly torment and humiliate another apprentice, ambitious eager-beaver Alex Holt. By the time the ship is near the Equator, Holt is reduced to little more than a galley slave and predictably enough goes crazy, killing a fellow sailor on a suffocatingly hot afternoon. Trygg rides out a brief attempt at mutiny by the first mate and in the end brings the Emilia Denholm to London, where a cover-up ensues--Alex is convicted of a lesser charge of manslaughter, Trygg dies, and the sadder, wiser Boult is left to look for another berth. Despite a bravura description of rounding the Horn and an impressive knowledge of sailing vessels circa 1913, Gould (an Australian poet whose first novel this is) never manages to bring his Captain Trygg to convincing life--he's a catch-as-catch-can amalgam of Queeg, Ahab, Bligh, et al. The result is a portentous novel, with numerous darkly muddled undertones, that doesn't find its sea legs.

Pub Date: Jan. 12th, 1986
Publisher: St. Martin's