Hell at Sea, Volume Six: "The Fortune of War"
England at war with America? Sweet Nancy Pickle! How could this happen? I just saw those two cads drinking pints together and slapping backs! What could have started this intercontinental dust-up?

Here's my theory: if your wig is tight, and your socks are tight, then all the blood pools up in your groin like sausage, and then you've got no choice but to start wars or write sonnets or explode. Wars are the most fun. Might as well have a war with someone you know.

The sixth installment of Patrick O' Brian's "Hell at Sea" series is called "The Fortune of War" and it packs quite the narrative load, my dears. This volume is all about pressure and impotence and what happens when you keep funneling pain cheddar, woe beans, and problem cabbage into a gut filled with rage. YOU GET EXPLOSIONS OF A MAN NATURE.

This is also book two in the "One-Hundred Horrible Things that Happen, Ending in Marriage" three-book miniseries of the greater "Hell at Sea" odyssey. No fucking around here: the book barely even gets off the ground before the horrors start piling up. For five bucks (used), you can crack this sucker open right to the front and start reading about a whole ship full of Brits getting burned up to Jesus like moths at a candlelight vigil. Now: if that isn't a deal, then I don't know what value is.

The survivors of the initial conflagration (including our manjacks Aubrey and Maturin) start rowing to Brazil, drinking piss and fishing with the dead. They don't have to eat each other: they are rescued. But before they can wink and caper, the ship that saves them is captured by the Yanks, those jolly pups with bent, tinny accents who don't even know how to properly sort jawlines, skin hues, and linguistic choices into a caste system.

It's the War of 1812, and everyone is dancing with the wrong partner in a wacky martial turnabout that's got Europe war-hard, battle-wet, and yet (basically) unsatisfied. For instance, instead of sticking it to steady Britland, Napoleon is two fingers up Russia and trying to figure out whether or not she's clean, because she seems so easy (word is -- she's been around). England, feeling slighted, has turned her charms on America -- "the one that got away" -- and now no one knows what commitment even means anymore. For the hip and bold, it's all greased-up flagpoles and marching these days, and never mind the politics.

However, our boys have been missing out on the fun, because they've been dealing with shipwreck, mutiny, Australia, and starvation, and now, as prisoners, they are hauled off to rot in foul, progressive New England, keeping them from adding their balls and powder to England's cannon.

Fuck it; YOU tell me what this all adds up to: the British Navy can't win a single simple sea battle against the wily Yanks, Jack's got a broken arm and has gone crazy after witnessing almost unbeatable American tactics, and Diana Villiers is shacked up with some "Southern Gent" named Howard Johnson to get at his jewels and his American citizenship. Johnson is a credible villain due to his height, his good looks, his blond hair, his lechery, his slave-holdings, his contemptible alliances, and his silly mustache. If this were modern day America, the man would have his own "man-core" band and he would smash mirrors in Prague hotel rooms while whispering for peppermints.

At any rate, the situation seems bleaker than usual. Jack and Stephen are considered prisoners-of-war by the Americans, and the French are closing in on Stephen for his counterespionage plays that keep turning dandy French spies into cold pate brisee.

The horror of life as American prisoners mounts like dust on top of the refrigerator of a dead man, and even though Jack and Stephen are treated well, they are not constituted for enervating captivity. So they plan their escape -- or anyway, their escape becomes necessary. The problems go down Maturin's gullet hard and fast to fester and to boil and to make rage gas, and so Maturin lets one rip and kills a whole bunch of motherfuckers by beating them to death. You'll laugh out loud and have to walk around the room for a little while to calm down.

Stephen's passel of murders causes a ruckus, and so Jack must rise up out of his sickbed and get them all to a ship, lest they be hanged. "Impossible," says Reason, "their every move is being watched." So Jack swallows the same bolus of bubbling rot, hate, and pain as Stephen, adds fizzy water, and then --

KABOOM! Man all over the place!

That's this book in a nutshell: a prison narrative and then an escape narrative sandwiched in between two sea battles and some speculation on what makes Americans tick. The answer is contrary incommensurates larded with flexibility and grits. You know, like how Americans can watch their national capital get burned to the ground and still insist they won the War of 1812 (we won the War of 1812).

This book is definitely a departure. Some people might be irritated that a "ripping sea yarn" takes place completely on land, but it never feels that way. The hallmarks and rhythms of a ripping sea yarn are still here, and -- denatured and stripped of their props -- the thrills are even more potent and strange. When each man is a ship unto himself sailing the sea of society, you learn about the rough, drunk inner captains of the heart called "souls."

I don't know why Patrick O'Brian is such a good writer to me. Perhaps because he has created two very different ideals of manhood and refuses to pick between them. As a result, he has triangulated what it means to be "a good sailor" in the overlapping region where Maturin and Aubrey see eye-to-eye: in their strong wills, their sense of honor, and their refusal to ever go down without a fight. If you have anxiety about such things, these books are addictive.

In an age where stasis, ambiguity, timidity, openness, and inoffensive sincerity are the slack characteristics of the preserved classes, the overlapping traits shared between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin could teach all of us something about why we should bother fighting for the things we believe in. Any man, woman, or child can be "a good sailor." You just have to "go right at 'em" because "there is not a moment to lose!"

O'Brian is also so goddamned detail-mad! He never lets a ship-to-ship battle get in the way of an in-depth description of what his officers ate for lunch, or what the gunner said to the bosun about the weather at the fourth turn of the clock. It would be awful, if it didn't work so well. The power of "Hell at Sea" lies in the way in which O'Brian composes the fabric of the fantastic from a choice agglomeration of nonsense: the way in which he manages to sculpt myth, pathos, and tension out of cups of coffee and ship's biscuit.

This is why we read at all. Our real lives are made up of this kind of pointless flotsam, and yet there is depth and danger all around, in other people and in possibilities. We both fear and hope for collisions with these passing ships, and in between engagements, we dip our toast in the grog we are issued and some of us pray, and some of us make dirty jokes and hit on your cousin.

It's all the same. It's all war, always.


Posted by miracle on Thu, 14 Aug 2008 05:38:45 -0400 -- permanent link

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