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THE VOYAGE by Philip Caputo


by Philip Caputo

Pub Date: Nov. 8th, 1999
ISBN: 0-679-45039-4
Publisher: Knopf

Comparisons with Melville and Conrad will occur to readers of this pungent tale of perilous maritime adventure—a notable departure for the author of Exiles (1997), etc. But the story is also about family unhappiness, its closest analogues (as the last line implicitly acknowledges) to be found in Faulkner’s brooding studies of overweening ambition, pride, miscegenation, and madness. This one begins in June 1901, when Bostonian Cyrus Brathwaite, who’s made fortunes salvaging wrecked ships and quarrying granite, banishes his three teenaged sons from their family’s Maine seacoast summer home, sending them off alone in a schooner (the Double Eagle) with orders not to return before fall. Stalwart 16-year-old Nathaniel (the image of his idol, Frank Merriwell) and his younger brothers, ironical Eliot and scholarly Drew—eventually accompanied by their friend Will Terhune—grudgingly, then stoically, embark on an adventure that takes them to South Carolina (and a tense meeting with their elderly great-aunt), the Tortuga Islands off Key West (to search a sunken ship that’s another part of Cyrus’s clouded history), and a “monster” hurricane and its aftermath (in Cuba), leaving one of them dead and another effectively unmanned for life, all followed by a bitter return home unaided by their indifferent father. Caputo’s very crowded story is “reconstructed,” in 1998, by descendant Sybil Brathwaite, who pieces together from the Double Eagle’s terse log, from a moribund relative’s recollections, and from various family “memorabilia” a carefully concealed history of frustration and deceit involving Cyrus’s beautiful, withdrawn wife Elizabeth, the boys’ mysterious half-brother, and their offended father’s quite possibly insane hunger for revenge. Though they’re awkwardly compressed into the closing pages’ brief compass, these disclosures strike with the force of Jacobean tragedy. The novel isn’t especially shapely, but it’s been scrupulously researched, strongly imagined, and painstakingly hammered together: those who plunge headlong into its dark waters will not soon forget the experience. (First printing of 40,000; Book-of-the-Month alternate selection)