Hell at Sea, Volume Five: "Desolation Island"
I read this book all in one sitting at the Gramercy Cafe (a diner) on New Year's Eve. I was waiting for a friend to show up, and I just kept turning the pages. The waiter kept refilling my coffee, so I kept sitting there. The clock kept ticking down to midnight, but instead of casual human joys, I could only think about spars and the pumps, and all the glory of keeping your ship afloat against all the holes of nature, man, love, and combat!

Time? What is time? We are sinking!

Eventually, a happy group of prostitutes and their "management" came in to get a good base of food down for their night's work and they took the table next to me.

They weren't drunk yet, but they were all in high spirits. I was not. I was reading a book about broken hearts and cabbage. If the men made it to the rum, you see, the mutiny could not be stopped. While not exactly depressed, I was definitely moody and wan.

As the group sat down and put in their orders, their attention wandered, and since I was the diner's only other patron and it was a holiday, this meant that they felt like they needed to say hello. Eventually, I realized I was being stared at and looked up from my crumpled paperback.

"READING? On New Years?" one of the ladies said.

I looked at the cover to see what she saw. I thought about it. Troubled young man, reading a book called "Desolation Island." Maybe I could turn that into something of rrrrrromance. Nah, that would be ludicrous, and probably expensive. I decided to be honest.

"It is great," I said. "It's about the sea and a drug-addicted surgeon. They are taking prisoners to Australia."

"Must be a good book, if you are reading it on New Years."


"I like to read those "Left Behind" books. You ever read those?"

"No. But I think I might someday. Maybe for the wrong reasons."

"You should. You want to join us?"

"I am waiting for a friend."

"Must be a DAMN good book! Ha ha!"



In this volume of "Hell at Sea," there are some familiar patterns established early on that are like curling up with a warm blanket.

In fact, you start to get downright complacent.

Aubrey's life is a lee-shore-shipwreck at home: he is getting cheated at cards and is being conned into a bullshit silver-mining operation by a man named Kimber, who probably sports a curly black mustache.

Stephen is still pining after Diana Villiers, who gets rounded up as a spy for delivering what she thought were sex letters to America, but were actually secret spy documents. Pissed, unhinged, and with one eye a-twitching, Stephen gets Diana out of jail, but she flees to America to marry some rich jackhole named Johnson. Stephen is passed over, yet again, for a man with money, land, and jewels.

That's when Stephen falls the fuck apart. He sleeps; he eats toasted cheese; he takes drugs. He takes so many drugs that he maybe kills some kid under his surgeon's knife, and then he takes more drugs to deal with that fact.

He does not ride a motorcycle to the bad part of town and light matches off of the zippers of street toughs in order to smoke his unfiltered cigarettes. But he would if he could!

Sophie gets so worried about him that she makes Jack take him to Australia with a bunch of convicts to get him away from his solitary vices. Jack knows this is a bad idea, but Jack convinces Stephen that this is a good idea, and then they set sail on the first of a three-book miniseries that shall be called (for history) "One-Hundred Horrible Things that Happen, Ending in Marriage."

The first horrible thing that happens is that the prison-ship Jack agrees to take is beset by gaol fever, and everyone gets it and many die. There is so much sickness that Stephen runs out of drugs and starts giving people placebos. Comic! Antic! Horror! Then there is the horrible storm and prison revolt, wherein the jailers all die and the responsibility for the prisoners is remanded to Jack, a man who does not care for dead weight.

Sailors drop like flies, and scurvy sets in. In maybe the most thrilling sequence in all of the "H-A-S" books so far, Aubrey's busted-up ship the "Leopard" is hunted on the open waters by a Dutch ship-of-the-line called the "Waakzaamheid." At every turn, they are dogged and outfoxed by the 600-man floating castle. There is a fight; a conflagration. And then, after everything, the Leopards run out of drinking water.

To get water, they try to cut loose some ice from a passing iceberg. They fuck up and punch a hole in their own ship instead. The ship begins to sink. The crew begins to mutiny.


"Desolation Island" is a study in "how to deal with the effects of an individual broken heart by losing yourself in the general misery of the world." Stephen Maturin desperately wants to die, and this book provides him with many opportunities. But he persists because he finds he can help others and because he finds the horror of life at sea so comical and bracing.

Ah, and so do I!

Slowly, Maturin comes off the drugs and buckles down to the task of staying alive, of keeping his Nabby's men alive, of keeping HOPE alive when it comes to a future reconciliation between him and the Lady for Whom He Burns.

He treats fevers and he reconciles a pair of lovers that remind him of the way he and Diana should have been. He is only half-romantic about it. He baits and switches them into betraying the whole French spy operation, leading to murders at the highest levels of power, and throwing the whole Franco-American alliance into deepest confusion.

But isn't it cute when they kiss?

By overcoming each horrible event, Stephen slowly remembers his secret powers. He remembers his devil heart.

And Jack? Jack kills 600 men with a perfectly-timed cannon shot that he personally fires while bleeding from a massive head-wound that scars him for life. His last vision before passing out from blood loss is the "o" of shock on the faces of his newest victims as they realize that a skeleton-crewed prison-ship has sent them all to their untimely deaths.

For the first time in all of his days, Jack mourns the butchery of precious souls for which he is directly responsible, and curses a God that sends decent men up against him, a freak of nature who kills with a whistle and who simply cannot be bested.

He mourns for ten minutes.

And then it is time for jam pudding!


The Gramercy Cafe did not serve jam pudding, but instead I had a slice of chocolate cake in sympathy which I could (profoundly) not afford. Why not? Sometimes you have to enjoy the pleasant things available and pay their price in blood. You never fucking know when some jolly British blonde will murder you forever, especially on New Year's Eve.


Posted by miracle on Sun, 25 May 2008 08:16:39 -0400 -- permanent link

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