The True Story of 28,000
Bath Toys Lost at Sea
Viking, 402pp, HC, $27.95
Leave it to a former English teacher to follow a yellow brick road (or in this case, a yellow duck) all over the world for years and then write a 380 page (402 with endnotes) disquisition about his quest. Moby Duck is part bildungsroman inspired by the great authors reeling around in Hohn's head. Melville. Conrad, Dante, Barry Lopez, Cormac McCarthy, Mcloskey and Kenneth Graham (to name just a few) are quoted lavishly.
Anticipation of impending fatherhood must also have heightened Hohn's yellow duck fascination--first brought to his attention by a student's paper about the iconic bath toy. Hohn also fondly recalls his own Sesame Street enhanced youth (where the rubber duckie first became a star in pop kiddie culture).
But the book defies definition solely by a literary category. As well as a bildungsroman, it is an allegory, a travelogue, an investigation, an adventure, an analysis both cultural and physical pouring from Hohn's own throbbing head bursting with questions. (As I read this book I frequently pictured Mr. Hohn's brain cells incessantly flashing at light speed.)
His own explanation for following the duck and writing the book is strikingly simple, "The toys had gone adrift, I'd go adrift, too...It wasn't that I wanted, like Cooke and Admundsen and...all those other dead explorers, to turn terra incognita into terra cognita, the world a map. Quite the opposite. I wanted to turn the map into a world." Instead of floating along in America's endless cushy slush of the "Age of Toys" Hohn craved real experience. He surely found it!
The book is divided into six "chases" describing the author's various efforts to discover what happened to the bath toys that fell from a container ship in the North Pacific in 1992. In his first and second chase, he heads for Alaska where a great part of the floating man-made garbage lost from ships crossing the Pacific finally beaches. (Estimates put the amount of garbage set adrift from ships annually at more than 6.4 million tons.) The accumulation on the Alaska's southwestern coastline is truly appalling. After a beach "clean-up" by volunteers, helicopters are called in to carry enormous bags full of trash to a waiting barge. Cynical conservationists call this operation (and others like it) a scam (i.e. a show, a drop in the bucket).
On the third chase, Hohn flies to Hawaii to the southernmost town on the Big Island and sails with research chemist, Captain Charles Moore who is sampling the contents of marine animals' stomachs. Moore deconstructs the now famous photograph of the contents of a dead albatross's stomach, and Hohn learns that plastic never decomposes. "Globally we are currently producing 300 million tons of plastic every year and no known organism can digest a single molecule of the stuff, though plenty of organisms try."
The fourth chase takes Hohn to the Toys and Games Fair at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center where he learns that in 2006 "...Americans spent $31 billion dollars on toys and video games, almost as much as the rest of the world's countries combined." He visits plastic toy extrusion factories on the Pearl River Delta and muses on the commercialization of childhood, deciding that "the real problem isn't that childhood has been commercialized but that our economy has been infantilized."
The fifth chase finds our intrepid journalist on a container ship crossing the Pacific in the middle of winter...the same route that the container of ducks (and other less famous critters) took. He did get sick but he didn't fall overboard. The sixth and last chase takes Hohn to the Sea of Labrador and Greenland on the Knorr, a Wood's Hole research vessel in the company of the highly accomplished and almost totally blind chief scientist, Amy Bower, who is studying underwater "storms." The theory being tested on this voyage (by Hohn, not the scientists) is the claim that a yellow duck was found on Gooch's Beach in Kennebunk, Maine was from the spill Hohn is tracking. The duck would have had to float through the Bering Sea, the Bering Strait, the Transpolar Drift, Fram Strait down the Irminger Current or Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, the Labrador Sea and then bucked the Gulf Stream.
If you feel like you've been around the world riding on a plastic bath toy when you finish this book, it really is an illusion; but you have shared an encyclopedic meditative journey courtesy of Donovan Hohn's elegant and inquiring mind. He must have been one heck of an English teacher.