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The Sure Salvation is the name of a slave ship illegally running the Atlantic in the early 1800s. Its English captain, Hogarth, has aboard: 475 Africans headed for Brazil; a crew of Portuguese; officers who are English and reprobate; and a black cook named Alex Delfosse who is the brains (and ultimate nemesis) of the entire venture. As the book begins, the ship has lain still for ten days, no wind, an ""unbroken crust of its own garbage"" around it in the water, ""a contour of dully iridescent grease which seemed to have been painted onto the sea with one stroke of a broad brush."" But Hearne doesn't deliver the expected below-decks slave rebellion against ever-more-execrable conditions. What occurs instead is carefully incremental--and all above decks. Psychologies begin to unravel, starting with the captain himself, who lives quartered with his sex-denying wife Eliza in a small cabin. The officers become more brutal, but only Alex-the-cook keeps cool. Indeed, with efficiency and dispatch, Alex will free the slaves, who in turn murder most of the officers and some of the crew: his plan all along was to bring the slaves as free men like himself to the Amazon, where they'd be citizens of a jungle state headed by . . . Alex. Yet, even when murderous, Alex's movements have a strange grace and dignity. And Hearne writes his Benito Cereno-like tale in an upholstered prose of high literary quality, delineating the characters with style and subtlety, offering outstandingly palpable and visual scenes of ship life. (There's a wonderful, Melvillean scene in which the stores below decks are maintained, casks being cleaned and made tight again.) Only a lack of dramatic, vivifying pulse keeps this small novel from fully capturing the imagination. Otherwise: a rich, densely impressive piece of fiction.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1982
Publisher: St. Martin's