In Rogoff’s debut novel, two old rivals reunite in a snowed-in bar in New England.
Forty-year-old Sy Kirschbaum has spent the last 17 years of his life doing two things: translating the magnum opus of an alcoholic Czech dissident writer, Jan Horak, and pining after his old flame, Ida Fields. Now Sy has returned from Prague to his hometown of Portland, Maine, at Ida’s behest. But before he can see her, he must meet with her husband—his estranged friend, Gabe Slatky, a playwright. The two meet in a nautical-themed hotel bar—The Captain’s Cabin—just as a blizzard blows into the region. It’s difficult for them to speak to each other, because Ida’s three-month affair with Sy 17 years ago stands between them, as does the fact that she returned to Gabe (and that she chose him in the first place). They’re ostensibly there to discuss Ida, who’s fallen into a crippling depression that’s causing her to neglect Gabe and their daughter Hannah, as well as the theater that she and her husband founded together in the city. However, as the men order round after round of drinks (with each occasionally threatening to leave), they discuss their friendship, Jan Horak’s novel, Gabe’s one truly great play, and the glimpsed lives of other bar patrons. “It’s a strange thing,” observes Gabe at one point, “this habit of sitting here surrounded by a bunch of strangers, being both observer and observed, observed, that is, doing basically nothing. And this is the great social gathering point, the barroom.” The bar becomes the setting for a continuing dialogue about love, memory, unrealized dreams, and the attempt to find redemption in a single, great work of art.
Rogoff writes in a dense prose that displays the erudition and self-awareness of its narrator, Sy, critiquing every object and person in detail, veering into digressive anecdotes, and capturing dry but thoughtful exchanges (Sy: “The past is suffocating.” Gabe: “Can’t be any different in Prague or anywhere else for that matter.” Sy: “But it’s not my past, it’s not so personal”). Although some initial, deliberate murkiness about Ida’s condition may frustrate readers, they will soon realize that she’s mostly beside the point, from a narrative perspective. In the claustrophobic universe of The Captain’s Cabin, Sy and Gabe are themselves on a stage, and whatever conflicts exist between them must be resolved before they walk off into the darkness. Despite the title, Rogoff’s work doesn’t evoke Edgar Allan Poe; rather, Sy and Gabe’s back and forth calls to mind Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett—particularly their vision of the world as rigged, absurd, and ultimately hopeless. Information comes slowly and circuitously, and its importance isn’t always immediately apparent. But as the evening wears on, the lives of real people and fictional characters begin to overlap and blur. This premise might not strike everyone as compelling, but it results in an intriguing locked-room mystery—one in which the mystery is art itself.
A short but substantial work about aspiration and failure.