The latest book in Lock’s American Novels series is narrated by a colleague of Herman Melville’s, who tells a story that quietly moves toward gothic territory.
About halfway through Lock’s novel, narrator Shelby Ross is conversing with his friend and co-worker Martin when Martin invokes Moby-Dick. This isn’t a random reference: The year is 1882, and both men work with Herman Melville in the customs office. Yet Shelby has no idea what Martin is talking about—a telling reminder that Melville had, at this point in his life, fallen into literary obscurity. Shelby has similarly seen better days, economically speaking, but finds warmth in his interactions with both Martin and Melville. The novel is structured around Shelby’s telling the story of this period of his life to Washington Roebling, who engineered the Brooklyn Bridge. As Shelby recounts his story—which also includes his rivalry with Gibbs, another co-worker, who has a propensity for insults, sadism, and violence—it gradually becomes apparent that ominous events are on the horizon for all involved. Gradually, the central qualities of several of the characters—Martin’s enthusiasm, Shelby’s reticence, and Gibbs’ propensity for chaos—are destined for a collision of some sort. In the novel’s second half, Lock subtly suggests that Shelby is, if not unreliable, then not quite as aware of himself as he should be. And while Moby-Dick is often referenced by the characters, it’s Billy Budd, a later work of Melville’s, that’s alluded to thematically, as Lock addresses questions of desire and repression, both personal and societal. What begins quietly takes a turn for the emotionally wrenching.
It takes a little while to build up speed, but this novel memorably provides a window into old New York and its narrator’s conflicted mind.