THE HANDSOME SAILOR by Larry Duberstein

THE HANDSOME SAILOR

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Duberstein (The Alibi Breakfast, 1995; Postcards from Pinsk, 1991, etc.) sets out to fictionalize the last half of Herman Melville’s life—but in spite of a poetic and historically flawless effort, the result remains often turgid. After Moby Dick in 1851, Melville’s reading public fell away, and for over three decades he effectively wrote little or nothing. Duberstein opens his own tale when the novel of the great white whale is being published—and the Melville family is living a life of bucolic work and pleasure in rural Berkshire, Massachusetts, where the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne also reside in the neighborhood. All is edenic, that is, except that Melville (“the man who lived with cannibals”) is sadly unimpassioned within his marriage—with the result that this robust farmer/sailor/writer has an affair with the life-loving Mrs. Sarah Morewood right about the time his own third child is being born. Break-up between the lovers is inevitable, and the end of the affair is the beginning of 30 years of emptiness for Melville, filled only by his own determined stoicism as a Manhattan family dweller, the machine-like regularity of his ways, and his unglamourous job as a customs inspector. With age, however, comes a shape to things, and 30 years after his love for the now dead Sarah, another woman with Sarah’s verve and love of life enters Melville’s life—with results that will be no less sorrowful, and a narrative longueur that will be no less trying for the reader. The novel bursts at the seams with period flavor—the Sixth Avenue el has velour seats, Staten Island fine oysters, East 76th Street is a rough and uncouth neighborhood—but the stubborn, stony, often wordy Melville himself remains inert, however passionate inwardly, as life grows more confined, children and lovers die (one son is a suicide), passion is unattainable, the literary life unachievable. A fictional biography from the 19th century that’s extraordinary in its details, yet uncompelling at its center.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1998
ISBN: 1-57962-007-8
Page count: 268pp
Publisher: Permanent Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1998




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