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Book Review: The Handsome Sailor

Permanent Press

In 1988 a small Indy press in Sag Harbor, the Long Island home of the Moby Dick marathon, published a quirky novel about Herman Melville called The Handsome Sailor. It dazzled those who understood what Larry Duberstein was about in his innovative historical and biographical fiction.

Since then Melville’s admirers seem to be growing. Perhaps because of his fiercely cynical take on the times – his own and ours. Yet there’s always been a mystery about him. What did he do during the last decades of his life – after the literary and financial failure of Moby Dick, besides destroy serious writing and engage in minor literary offerings? Duberstein had some provocative ideas about that. And how to present them. Namely in the mode of Melville. Invoking Melville’s sometimes intimidating vocabulary, convoluted sentences, stark interjections, dark humor, and details peculiar to the 1850s and the 1880s. It’s an impressive performance.

Duberstein inhabits the head, heart, soul of the wild, witty and brooding genius, and creates a sense that we know the man behind that immense scraggly beard. In our age when so much fiction falls into predictable categories, driven by sales, The Handsome Sailor recalls the prescient, stream of conscientious style of an author, who is now heralded as a literary icon of his century. Not an inappropriate paving of the way to James Joyce's Ulysses, which celebrates its 100th publishing anniversary this year.

Famous as he was from writing adventure novels in the 1840s about his exotic South Seas experiences, Melville died in relative obscurity, having settled anonymously into a $4- a-day job as an inspector at the NY Custom House in lower Manhattan.

It was only in 1924, 33 years after his death, that an unfinished manuscript was found and hastily published, a novella about a handsome sailor called Billy Budd. Duberstein posits a theory, based in part on his own research, that the great man – in all senses, Melville was large and contained multitudes – put himself back to sea after 35 years of inaction and silence – using a trip to Bermuda to refine a story, Billy Budd, that he had begun shortly earlier.

Inspired by memories of two love affairs, one real, the other made up, Duberstein suggests they gave Melville the impulse to return to his deepest love, writing. Billy Bud, a sea tale about an unintended killing, explores the moral, ethical, and legal conflicts of accountability, justice, obligation, guilt, passion, retribution – themes Duberstein persuasively contends that informed Melville’s personal life during the silent decades. The years include the early 1850s when he summered with his family in the Berkshires and fell in love with an attractive, lively, and intelligent neighbor.

Decades later in the city, still married to his stolid wife, Lizzie, Melville falls for another intelligent, lively woman. This one fictional. In between, Melville lost two sons. One to suicide, his best friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who moved away, money, and a desire to put into print extensive thoughts about living in a “lamed and catastrophied world.”

That phrase, so Melvillian, and so indicative of the mood of our own time, invites, the kind of admiration and reflection rarely seen in literary fiction. Try this overlooked novel. It’s worth it.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.