Hell at Sea, Volume Three: "HMS Surprise"
There comes a time in every man's life when he has to shoot a man in the heart who has stolen his lady, or die trying.

This is the message that Patrick O'Brian teaches us in his third book, "HMS Surprise." (This is how I say it in my mind: HMS......pause....pause......SURPRISE! You will too, now).

So what's happened? What's been going on with our seafaring chappies while you and I have been busting in and out of bookstores, demanding paperback editions of the BEST SEA STORIES EVER WRITTEN? How have Aubrey and Maturin been doing since we last cracked the spine on their little hell and dove into their awful floating world of death, despair, rage, pain, biscuit, grog, carronades, and trepanning?

Jack's made Post Captain, and that's damn good news, narratively speaking. That means he gets a ship no matter what, if there's a ship to be had. A ship moves a plot, a ship is good for stowing things, and a ship takes you to new places and helps you blow them up.

However, promotion notwithstanding, the Admiralty has screwed him out of yet another paycheck for his privateering ways, meaning that he is broke again, and will not be laying on powder for exciting sorties in the Channel and along the French coast.

The message to other captains from the Admiralty: do not fuck my wife.

A few people have sympathy for Lucky Jack, but not many. Not even the Admiralty's own adventurous mate. Why? Because Jack is done fucking other men's wives! He has a sweetheart of his own that he is ready to lash to the taffrail of God, and to fuck exclusively, with the ultimate end of children, husbandry, and the bliss of a daily hot morning breakfast with a woman who is British.

However, being broke means that he can't get married yet. And broke means that he has to take the first available ship to stay one step ahead of debtor's prison, which is basically a gay rape club in pre-Victorian England where everyone has to drink port, and Jack is done with all that, HE'S DONE, HE'S OUT, NO MORE GAY RAPE AND PORT.

In other news, Stephen just got fingered as being a spy while in a public Navy budget meeting.

One of those bullshit Lords that England is famous for basically looks at him and says: "Hey great job spying for us. You really know how to make the French mad. And man, when they get mad -- boy you KNOW IT. I certainly wouldn't want to make the French mad. Would you like some whiskey? That's what YOUR PEOPLE drink, right? Who wants to do a jig? I bet you do! A jig for being such a good spy."

Oh fuck!

So, the first thing that happens in this book is that Stephen gets abducted and tortured by the French, and Aubrey has to save his ass by cold killing everyone in a little French-occupied Spanish villa.

Then Stephen and Jack go on a merry adventure to India, ferrying a dignitary around the Cape who keeps puking all over himself and rarely leaves his four feet of puke space and puke bucket.

They make it to India, they intercept a French fleet, Jack makes his money, Jack marries Sophia, Jack debauches a sloth with rum, etc. BUT CONSIDER THIS CHAIN OF EVENTS:

Stephen's doomed love Diana has also ventured to India with her new lover, keeper, and protector Richard Canning. Richard Canning is a merchant, you see. A rich man. A swell. A man who can buy and sell such as bastard ship's doctors. Diana sees him as a good way to live an easy life. A provider. A protector. So Stephen, knowing the score, prescribes laudanum to himself to ruin his penis forever. He records how much laudanum he takes every day in his diary so that he does not become addicted and can chemically maintain his new celibate life.

This uh -- does not work.

While examining some peculiar birds on a little rock, a storm hits and Stephen is stranded for days and days, undergoing a murderous depression detox. He has to drink water out of crevices larded with birdshit, watching the birds come and go and learning all about them as he sits, drinking birdshit water and eating birdshit for food. Something like a WEEK passes as the ship tries to get the wind right to swing back around and pick him up. This "sobers him up," as it were and puts him back in fighting shape. So he is ready to try a new tactic for dealing with the "Canning Situation."

"Jack, you have debauched my sloth with alcohol," said Stephen, climbing down into the wardroom with a mad glint in his eye. "I bought that sloth to observe its ways, and now its ways are those of a low drunkard."

"What are you going to do," said Jack. "Shoot me in the heart with your gun?"

"Funny you should mention that," said Stephen, narrowing his eyes. "I am saving my bullets for the man who stole my Diana."

"Isn't Diana essentially a kept woman by now, friend Stephen?" asks Jack.

Stephen screams, and punches through the hull like Bruce Lee.

Water begins pouring in

Jack calls a carpenter.

Does Stephen get revenge? All I will tell you is that this book ends with Stephen performing surgery on himself, extracting a bullet from his own chest, and living to see another day. That cannot be said about everyone who shows up in this novel to fight gun duels.

Does this love affair work out between Stephen and Diana? Is it "meant to be"?

All I am saying is that sometimes you have to kill a guy to get what you want, and that even if that fails, at least you know that wasn't what you were supposed to do.


And if you are Jack Aubrey, sometimes you have to kill 1100 people in a boat by blowing them out of the water when they do not strike their colors fast enough or if you are simply in a hurry to eat a partridge. Goddammit, it is good to be at sea!


Posted by miracle on Sat, 29 Mar 2008 18:26:54 -0400 -- permanent link

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