A continent-hopping story about a 600-foot tanker stuffed with a toxic mix of chemicals, mutinous crew members and Melvillean hubris.
In his second maritime novel, Masiel (2182 Kilohertz, 2002) explores South America and the lawless coastal nations of West Africa. Harold Snow is the aging bosun of the Tarshish, a corroded, dying tanker specializing in the transportation of ammonia, acid and other dangerous substances. Masiel isn’t subtle about the metaphorical connections—rusty and polluted old ship, crusty and polluted old sailor—but Snow has enough layers to be more engaging than your average clichéd salt. A veteran of Pearl Harbor with a dark past in Vietnam, he’s hard-bitten in the way most sailors in seafaring thrillers are, but he’s also empathetic, mentoring a young crew member, Joaquin, whose grandfather fought with Snow in World War II, and struggling to maintain a relationship with a woman named Elizabeth that is more platonic than he’d like. Snow’s various torments are counterbalanced by the fast-paced story of the crew’s constant struggles to unload its cargo, extract decent payment for its activities, hold the ship together and escape the violent civil unrest in Liberia, where Snow takes the crew on an ill-advised detour. Sailing under a false flag and doctored paperwork, the Tarshish, it becomes increasingly clear, is rotten to the core, and the drama among the crew members—especially between Snow and the ship’s first mate, the conniving, persistently skeptical Charlie Bracelin—escalates as the ship drifts down the African coast to make its final tragic run. Masiel clearly understands the details of what makes a ship function, but he’s careful not to let his expertise about tankers overwhelm the story.
An assured, propulsive novel that nicely balances adventure sequences with more intimate moments.