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SHIPPING OUT by Michael Stephens



Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1979
Publisher: Apple-wood Press (Box 2870, Cambridge, Mass. 02139)

At both the beginning and the end of this short novella/memoir, Stephens (Season at Coole) lets his narrator soak in nostalgia-regret--for the sea-change suffered his young innocence and for a last, mid-Sixties voyage as a below-decks dishwasher on a transatlantic liner. But between these sentimental parentheses is a loud racket, very fresh and peppy: the voyage itself. The life the crew leads below-decks is largely Latin and salsa-flavored, often violent, a little crazy (one hand has an ongoing fantasy of himself as a racing thoroughbred wild over a lovely filly), and sometimes just plain silly--as all hands gear up for the ritual of drinking/whoring/fighting in port. But all the passengers above ever see is sweetness and light, and that adds a wrinkle all its own--like a battle under blankets. The narrator knows enough to stay mostly out of harm's way, getting his kicks mostly from eye, ear, and nose. A first sight--and whiff--of the Azores off the bow: ""Their smell, fecund and prehistoric, cut across the salt air as they splayed out, squat and blackly smoking, on the horizon."" An ""indigo and flamboyant"" street of bars in Palma Majorca that ""instead of being moody and sullen. . . pulsed with colorful hypertension. A young boy ogled a pair of passing legs that were mounted, like a crane on stalks, upon a pair of green polka dot wedgies."" Without room enough to uncurl its verbal energy--and without a plot of any consequence--the book has a tendency to do nothing but steam and puff; but there's a curious and busy point-of-view that is often appetizing and promises better novels ahead.