A first novel charts the undecided course of Alvin Henderlight, the green new wiper aboard the Polestar, bound on a mercy mission at Christmas time for the victims of an earthquake in Taltal, Chile. His ""royal job of wiping the asshole of the ship"" keeps him close to his bunkmate Franco, intensifies -- as does the treatment of the men aboard -- the enigma of Franco's attitude, and turns him from responding to Franco's appeal to an overall suspicion of the man. Alvin becomes the ""Professor"" because of his books, becomes a scapegoat, and, in helping Franco when the bedroom steward goes berserk, finds he does not want to be like the men of the crew but also that he does not want to be apart from them. Change of schedule takes them to Antofagasta, to a whorehouse and a crisis in the relations of the men, and Alvin learns that foreign places resemble home, plans to desert ship when he finds out it is headed for India -- but is sent back by Franco's advice to try to achieve control. A youthful search for self, against a background of raw masculinity, offers a study of the complex of attitudes heightened by the close life aboard ship. Not for the ladies.