In Catalano’s semiautobiographical novel, a young college professor sets sail through the Middle East in the 1980s.
Protagonist and narrator Joe Pisano is a college professor and yachting enthusiast, much like Catalano (Music and Literature/Pace; Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, 2000). As the novel opens, Pisano is sailing through calm waters with his friends, playing captain with histrionic panache. A self-professed romantic, his head is filled with maritime literature. One of the novels strengths is Pisano’s enthusiastic narration, which slides between self-deprecation, naïveté and hypersensitivity. Describing these early, easy sea travels, Pisano quips: “My guests, who referred to me as ‘Captain,’ seemed to enjoy my exaggerated storytelling, but they enjoyed the refreshments and swimming more than anything else.” Then Pisano gets a call to participate in a real sailing adventure: A crew circumnavigating the globe needs an extra crewmember from Cairo to Milan. Before he can quote Homer’s “wine-dark sea,” Pisano is on a plane. Once in the Middle East, he finds only disillusion: The boat is in terrible shape; fellow crewmembers, Roger and Dick, are silently disgruntled on their best days; and the sailing is a monotonous cycle of terrible weather, run-ins with bandits and hard labor. Some of the episodes, like an encounter with a dock full of treacherous-looking gunmen, live up to the standards of classic sea-faring adventure literature. Readers may wish all aspects of the novel exhibited the same attention to detail the author reserves for exploring his protagonist’s inner life. Roger and Dick are sketchily drawn, and most of Pisano’s interactions with them fail to deepen their characters; readers may long to hear their perspective, but it never comes. Catalano rarely explains boating vocabulary for the layman so boating novices will find certain parts of the novel hard to fathom. What is “the gelcoat of the freeboard” and how does a storm wreak havoc upon it? The adventure ends with a rather spectacular scene near Libya, but the novel’s overall lack of depth dulls the adventure.
This tale of adventure on the high seas is gripping at times but generally slight and rambling.