A 19th-century sailor reckons with the murder he committed and his love-hate relationship with the man who drove him to it.
Moshfegh’s (My Year of Rest and Relaxation, 2018, etc.) 2014 debut novella, now reissued, is set mainly in 1851, the same year Moby-Dick was published. It’s hard not to imagine a connection: Its title character is a hard-drinking New England seafarer who could have been one of the crustier, more bedraggled members of the Pequod’s crew. McGlue has a crack in his head from a fall from a train, unabashedly lets loose with homophobic slurs, and stands accused of killing Johnson, one of his shipmates. His instinctive reaction to this news is profane defiance of everyone around him, up to and including his mother; his main wish is to “dunk my skull into a barrel of gin.” But time in jail, and sobriety, gives his character some contours, if never anything resembling likability: He recalls childhood friends, youthful carousing, and dreams about Johnson that suggest McGlue’s early robust utterances of “fag” are evidence he’s protesting too much. Moshfegh’s fiction often fetishizes the repellent (vomit, blood, our capacity for callously using each other), but in time McGlue’s tale acquires tenderness of a sort. That’s partly thanks to Moshfegh’s lyricism: McGlue pleads for healing of his “hot snake brains…slithering and stewing around, steam seeping through the crack in my head.” But it’s mainly in his internal struggle over how much to concede he cared for Johnson (“he refound me and took me over”; “I was already drunk on him”). So as McGlue’s trial approaches, the novel evokes another classic, The Stranger, whose narrator also tried to comprehend the cruelty of the world and how much cruelty he’s responsible for himself.
A potent, peculiar, and hallucinatory anti-romance.