CLOSE QUARTERS by William Golding


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In Rites of Passage (1980), young aristocrat Edmund Talbot--headed for a minor government post in New Zealand circa 1815--told of his voyage out aboard a converted warship: an interrupted journey that brought the narrator, a comically peevish snob, face to face with several rude, disturbing truths. Now that journey continues--as we find that Edmund (who seemed to be a transformed fellow at the close of Rites of Passage) is just as fatuous as ever, well-meaning but hopelessly lost in the real world. Still beaded for the Antipodes, the decrepit wooden ship is plowing slowly through the southern Atlantic, while Edmund struggles to keep writing his journal--even though he can find nothing to write about except the weather. Then, thanks to the negligence of arrogant, alcoholic officer Deverel (the crew's sole ""gentleman""), the ship is ""taken aback,"" its masts broken (Edmund gushes with linguistic glee over confronting the origin of this metaphor: ""Good Lord, we might fill a book with the effect on our language of the sea affair!"") SuffEring a concussion during the tumult, Edmund staggers gamely on: when an enemy ship seems to be approaching, he rushes amid general passenger panic to the gun deck, where he bumps his head again--to the crew's vast amusement. An even greater blow awaits Edmund, however, when that approaching ship turns out to be the elegant British frigate Alcyone, bound for India. Among these aboard is lovely, witty Miss Marion Chumley, and Edmund is instantly smitten, awash in ""the most tragic of all intoxications, the most ridiculous, the sweetest."" He falls into delirium when the Alcyone sails off without him, waking up to find his own ship in ever worsening condition: becalmed, entangled in weeds, perhaps even falling apart. And when the captain orders that dragropes be used to clear those weeds, the ship soon seems doomed: a black-comic cliffhanger finale for volume #2 of a projected trilogy. Unlike Rites of Passage, then, this is not a shapely, satisfying narrative on its own: the subplots--the resurrection and suicide of Edmund's steward, the rivalry between two lieutenants for the captain's favor, etc.--seem disjointed; Edmund's own story hardly progresses; some of the character-comedy registers as filler, repeating ideas that readers of Rites will find far from fresh. Still, Golding's shipboard image-making (the two British vessels as a social microcosm, the old warship self-destructing) remains powerful, his ironic eloquence is a verbal treat--and those who relish his characteristic blend of cheer and dread will find this a more-than-respectable bridge front Rites of Passage to the trilogy's conclusion.

Pub Date: June 2nd, 1987
ISBN: 0374526362
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux