I hate that prissy, precious name, so I'm calling these books "Hell at Sea." As in Hell at Sea, Volume One: "Master and Commander," which is the first book in the series, and probably the only one you know about, unless you are a crazy man or woman, which these books will turn you into faster than pitch turns to salt.
Pretty soon, you will be scouring book shops in the East Village and shaking down blinking, student clerks for books with titles like "The Nutmeg of Consolation." You'll be offering to fistfight old ladies who are ahead of you in line with the title you need. Old ladies who know (WHO KNOW) they are robbing you, but who got there first.
Generally, they won't agree to fistfight you. Because Patrick O'Brian (the author, you swabs) has taught these old birds tactics, and you have been outsmarted. They are already pulling ahead, backstays tight, jib secure, head full, new quartermast cut from green India ash, flying the Blue Peter in your sad, broken face.
Alright, enough of that. The first order of business is to talk about how I got into these fucking books.
I got the first one for Christmas a few years ago. It was probably the worst Christmas of my life: lost a good girl forever, got beat up because I am an asshole, had to sew up my own bleeding scalp, nearly had to go to Mass. Anyway, it was the only present I got that year, and I only made off with it by stuffing it down my pants as I fled the scene of a crime. Does that still make it a present? Sure it does. From me to me. Best present there is. A prize!
You don't get to know the rest of that story. I'm not that drunk.
Anyway, so the book stayed on my shelf for six months while I found other things to read. It looked good, but I was plowing through Dickens at the time, and it didn't look long enough to be worth it.
(Here's a tip: when you are depressed, find the longest book you can find and start reading it like you are clinging to a rock during a mighty Baltic blow. By the time you are done, if you are still depressed (you won't be), you'll be living a whole new life.)
In order to buy a bus ticket to get out of town, I had to sell all the books I'd already read, and "Master and Commander" was one that didn't qualify. So I shoved it in my bag, and it was my only companion as I took the long, hot bus trip from Austin to New York: motoring through the unreconstructed South with hours-long bus layovers in dead, damned places like Jackson, Mississippi, where the only reason I survived is because the murderers there had to murder each other first to get to me, a drifter of easy pickings.
By the time there was one clear murderer left, I was on my way out. Just like Jack Aubrey, eleven deaths ahead of danger!
So that's how I read this first book; while trying to ignore everything around me and still stay alert. Does it answer? It does!
This first one is a lot of fun. It's got a clear, simple story to it, and characters get established that are going to be around for awhile, so you'd better get used to them. This is the story of Goldilocks and the Surgeon, and how they took down the Cacafuego, a tale which becomes canonical "Hell at Sea" legend. A sloop taking down a 36-gun frigate? What? WHAT?
They took it down with lies. I won't ruin it for you.
Our two heroes (their spheres of hero-dom never quite overlap; giving you twice the story every book; more cannon for your dollar) meet while attending the same concert at the Governor's Mansion. Jack Aubrey won't stop humming along to the tune, and so Stephen Maturin keeps busting him in the ribs. They nearly fight a duel because of it, but instead they realize they can help each other, and so they do.
Aubrey is boning his superior's wife, and so he needs to get shipboard, quick, lest she end up pregnant, or her husband finds out. Maturin is a depressed wreck of a man -- a surgeon, naturalist, protonerd, and failure -- and he needs something to do to pay his debts. When Aubrey gets promoted to Master and Commander (a low rank, never mind the sound of it), he convinces Maturin to come along as ship's surgeon and general adviser, which is a job that YOU could do (yes, you). The medical standards at the time would make you -- whoever you are -- an outright medical genius. So lift the kedge and weigh the bilge, we are off to grander things!
In this one, Aubrey takes his first legendary command, the Sophie. It has sails, and sailors. Actually, I don't know a damn thing about boats, and I didn't really learn anything about them from this book, except there is a difference between boats, ships, frigates, and xebecs, and a xebec is also a type of boat that I don't know about.
The Sophies are a jolly bunch of tars. My favorite is Babbington, a five-foot-tall freak of nature who always has an exciting new venereal disease for Stephen to treat with quicksilver tinctures. The three main hearties among the crew all have Moby Dick analogues, but fuck all that. That's for someone with critical theories to establish, and mine all got washed away.
It's okay: Maturin can't even tell the difference between topsails and stunsails, the little Irish bastard, and he gets along just fine with his new demon friends. And boy, is there some hell! Getting press-ganged is hell at sea! Fighting random, pitched ship-to-ship battles next to illiterate sodomites, catamites, and sadists is hell at sea! Ship's surgery to the roll of the waves is hell at sea! Getting whipped for cursing, drinking, or being a coward is hell at sea!
Sending ten-year-old Lord's sons to die so that you can profit (slightly)...that just makes good British sense. You'll eat bugs and like it. You'll eat disgusting pickled jellies and call it Sally-My-Darling.
And when the day is done, you'll drink your black and gritty coffee, eat a partridge, and play a few tunes with your pal until the next ugly battle comes that makes no sense and makes many, many good men dead. You can't beat Napoleon by wishing it. You have to practice with those guns twenty times a day.
And before you know it, everyone is back on land. Restless. Spending money like water. Itching for a new command.
But that's okay, because there are twenty more books to go, you culls and cunt-splicers!
I'll give you a little time to read this one before we move on. But we gotta move on! Aubrey needs cash, and the admiralty keeps robbing him on technicalities! I'll be in the ward room, stewing, sleeping one off between turns of the glass, lest I find myself on the wrong side of the Articles of War next Sunday.
There's no church on a ship. Not unless someone dies.
And even then, you wait 'till there's a goodly number of corpses -- if you're smart -- before you start calling down God. Wrap that body in sailcloth. There'll be others, dear, and we'll throw them all overboard at once. No sense wasting a good funeral service on just one man, when there's work to be done, and cold seas to sail.
Posted by miracle on Mon, 10 Mar 2008 06:49:26 -0400 -- permanent link