Eighty-six-year-old Neider, a much-acclaimed Mark Twain scholar and Antarctica explorer (The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, 1956, filmed as One-Eyed Jacks), presents two short novels, apparently his first published fiction since the ill-advised A Visit to Yazoo (1956).
In the title story, George Barber, an American nature photographer, flies to McMurdo Sound in Antarctica, the site of Mount Erebus with its fiery lake of molten lava, then boards an icebreaker, The Penguin, captained by Jack Torneau, who unaccountably takes a dislike to his passenger. Humiliatingly, the photographer is quartered not with fellow observers but in a far-off, dark, cramped rack with only a red light to see by. It’s a poor place to experience the gloriously described Southern Ocean, which has the world’s worst, most turbulent waters. Is the rather girlish captain, who has a weak stomach, fearful that Barber’s photos will expose his femininity? At the Grotto Berg itself, a spectacular thing with Roman arches so big the ship can actually sail into them, Barber gets his photos but disaster befalls the ship. In the companion novella, The Left Eye Cries First, Sid Little, 63, an early-retired Long Island attorney, has his second bar mitzvah and—at the urging of a friend’s lingering but fatal illness, and also of a dream of his homeland—decides that Gorbachev being in power is a sign that he should return to Ukraine. Sid hasn’t been there since his family fled the country when he was 11. His trip brings back rich memories of his Russian-Jewish childhood and early sexual experiences, there and in Paris. When he comes home to his still-alive but dying friend, his own health reassures him.
Two lively if oddly focused stories about real people caught up in twin forms of violence.