- by Carol Standish
The dominant characteristic of writer, John Pollack’s first venture into the memoir/travel genre is buoyancy—which is happily appropriate to the book’s subject: a boat built of wine corks. Cork Boat (Pantheon, 291pp, $21) is the story of the origin of the idea to build such a boat (a boyhood fantasy fanned by a family tragedy), the up-hill (Capitol and others) battle to actually build the boat and the triumphant float-sail-row and occasional tow 133 miles down the Douro River through the heart of Portugal’s cork country
Pollack’s previous achievements in a quasi-literary field were winning the O. Henry Pun-Off Championships in 1995 (the trophy is a gilded horse’s ass) and working as a speech writer on Capitol Hill and for the Clinton White House. These experiences and talents contribute heavily to the narrative tone as well as the author’s sensitivity to and frequent acknowledgement of the absurdity of the whole project.
Nothing in the book is laugh-out-loud funny, unless you have a heightened appreciation for puns, but the book’s youthful tone carries the reader lightly above the fray (the boat assembly team pulling sweat-drenched Washington all-nighters, Pollack hating to wheedle corks, especially in the Washington drizzle, the scheduling and how-to quarrels between Pollack and his largest talent contributor to the project).
The privileged thirty something author’s occasional dips into self-pity is a little harder to rise above. Though they dampen, however, they don’t extinguish the overall quixotic sweetness of the effort. We bobble along with the narrative as it hits little backwaters, eddies and sometimes rambling asides because Pollack has managed to endear the project to our own private imaginations and we become its rooting section.
In addition to being just plain useless fun, over time the cork boat project acquires a philosophical mantle. The World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks take place during the boat-building process and after Pollack is evacuated from the office building in which he works, he spends the rest of the day in a daze. Continuing to work on the cork boat seems shamefully frivolous. In some of the nicest passages of the book, Pollack expresses the more universal reasons for the boat.
In Portugal at the beginning of the boat journey he says to well-wishers how important hope and celebration are in the face of loss. “The hard knocks are inevitable...The good times, the dreams, those you reach for.” Looking around the table at the faces with brimming eyes he has an epiphany—that the dreams and losses were not just about him and his cork boat. He had joined the human stream in sharing dreams and loss.
He makes a similar connection with Francisco Pinto, the European sales manager of Cork Supply, a corporate sponsor of the project. Pinto reads to Pollack from Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki, “ ‘Once in a while you find yourself in an odd situation. You get into it by degrees and in the most natural way but, when you are right in the midst of it, you are suddenly astonished and ask yourself how in the world it all came about. If, for example, you were to put to sea on a wooden raft with a parrot and five companions...’ ” Pollack, himself steeped in the accounts of the great explorers writes, “Yes, he understood the cork boat. And we understood each other.”
The best part of the story, at least for a fellow boater, is the journey down the river. The cork boat and crew were feted in every village with free bed and board by the humble, with feasts and fireworks from the more grand. They were watched and worried after and helped along the way by the river people who know the it best, captains of boats big and small. If there is a hero in this story, it is these big-hearted, generous and enthusiastic Portuguese people.
Like other reviewers, I lament the lack of photographs in the book. It seems parsimonious on the part of the publisher since there were apparently a plethora to choose from. However, Cork Boat does have a website which supplies missing visuals. (See this months’ web reviews.)