Reminiscent at its darkest of B. Traven, and echoing overall the hard-boiled fiction of an earlier era, this short, sharp novel from prizewinning Capouya (In the Sparrow Hills, 1994, etc.) charts the bleak course of a young merchant seaman toughing it out in the Mediterranean after WWII.
On first view, seaman Mike is between berths, landlocked on the French coast near Nice, getting into a scrape with two British sailors in the bar he hangs out in because one of them called his native New York “Jewtown.” The chance of a berth in Genoa turns into a false lead, so, after a turn in an Italian jail, where he’s beaten by his jailors before they realize he’s an American, he comes back to Nice. A job offer awaits as skipper of a small, fast smuggling ship, supposedly dealing mostly in contraband cigarettes. Mike’s first run, however, is to take a group of ex-Nazi officers to Egypt, and he realizes he’s close to hitting bottom. Although Mike gets along well with his crew and befriends a fellow captain, MacNamara, when the front office later gives him a parcel to deliver on the side, with a hefty bonus attached, he wants no part of it, pitching it down the sewer and catching the next plane to Paris. Further adventures start in the States, when he signs on as mate for a crew taking guns to British-blockaded Palestine. The ship is intercepted at sea, and the crew and cargo are put under British guard on Cyprus until an encounter with an American-educated Turkish captain gives Mike a chance to escape. In Tel Aviv, he meets with Jewish resistance leaders eager for more guns, but their palpable racism disillusions Mike enough to go home. There he learns the fate of his complicated friend MacNamara.
With its noirish sensibility and restless anecdotes, Capouya’s tale sets a compelling tone, resembling a landscape awash in moonlight, as striking for its shadows as for its substance.