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Moral rot and fevered dreams aboard a pirate slave ship lead to mutiny, murder, and the ambiguous initiation into manhood of a young boy--by the author of last year's acclaimed Fading, My Parmacheene Belle. Fourteen-year-old Tom, who has been apprenticed to the captain of the Charles Beauchamp by his father, the slave ship's owner (""to make of me a gentleman""), witnesses and narrates the story of the ship's dark journey to Africa and back. As the sailors, who think they have signed on for a whaling expedition, gradually understand their impending mission, an atmosphere of ugly dreaminess overtakes them, and Tom's attention is diverted from the study of books about insects in the captain's library to torture--first of a demented mate, then of the ship's cook--by the crew. Soon another mystery unfolds: a man in a peacoat, living in the captain's stateroom, is shown to be a woman in disguise, and although at first she seems to be a stowaway, rumors abound that she is the captain's wife--according to the dead cook's young apprentice, a wildly dreamy boy, the captain's seventh or eighth wife, and the only one who hasn't been murdered in some grisly way. Tom comes to believe that she is the estranged sister of a blood-drinking barbarian mulatto slave king with whom the captain has told him the ship is on its way to trade. But Tom is wrong; and after he has satisfied his sexual desire for her, and after the slaves are bought and boarded, and the slave king is declared to have been killed, and the Charles Beauchamp is nearing its destination in Brazil, Tom finds out who she and the cook's apprentice really are, and what part he has been called to play in the captain's murder, as the moral muck of slave trading overflows its banks and Tom's youth. One of the eeriest and most romantic stories about coming of age in moral darkness since the 19th century, the language, tone, and symbolic techniques of whose great novels this faithfully adheres to. A good imitation of a major work.

Pub Date: April 25th, 1988
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin