- by Carol Standish
Voyage to the North Star by Peter Nichols (Carroll & Graf; $24; 352p) is a rip-snorting morality tale. In his debut novel, Author Nichols combines all the mindless energy of a charging polar bear with the melancholy self-examination of a lost soul.
This is an oddly contemporary yarn in spite of its classic allegorical overtones of good against evil and man against nature. Protagonist, Will Boden is a thoroughly modern man in the tradition of a Sterling Hayden or Russell Banks character-full of hurt pride, ambivalence, and angst. Antagonist Carl Schenck is a bigger than life cartoon-the kind of character you hope is not based on any real human being and yet you know better. The novel's 1930s setting could be today with its "hoovervilles" of homeless living in cardboard boxes and its out-of-control instant millionaires.
Will Boden is down and out romantic. "He read Homer, Conrad, Thoreau, and Melville, believed them, and took them to heart." He dropped out of school and ran away to sea. Before the novel opens he had been captain of his own boat. Losing the vessel ignominiously brought financial ruin. Loss of pride put him into a hopeless gloom. Refusing to share his wife's earnings, he lives alone and prowls the New York waterfront with the legions of human flotsam, taking the worst of physical day jobs and working hard at his newly acquired cynicism.
Schenck dabbles with all the power symbols of the day mimicking his hero, Teddy Roosevelt. He owns a palatial Long Island waterfront estate and takes the obligatory African safari. He finances the design and building of a speed boat (using V-12 airplane engines from the Great War) which will beat the train from New York to Miami. Boden takes a job with Schenck for this project and the two characters circle each other like planet and moon for the rest of the novel.
Boden and Shed (a down and out Fairhaven wooden boatbuilder who rowed a dory to New York looking for work) are sent to scour the northeast coast to search for an appropriate vessel (preferably a Norwegian fisherman) for Schenck's next project, an Arctic safari. While sanity and reason are headed for Lunenburg, Schenck buys a 225 foot pleasure yacht from a failed big-time banker-thus bagging his first trophy before he leaves the Sound. When the voyage is sold to Boden by another crew member as a "suicide mission," he signs on. He'd been thinking of killing himself anyway.
Imagine being trapped on a light-weight showboat of a 225 foot yacht off the coast of Greenland with a man who fires a harpoon gun with a four-inch shell (attached to the yacht by a steel hawser) into an ice berg simply because, "I bought the goddamn thing, and I'm going to shoot it." The arrogance beyond arrogance of Carl Schenck drives the relentless action-packed plot from the minute everybody climbs aboard the Lodestar.
The tension is not between man and nature, Schenck barely acknowledges the existence of "nature" except in so far as it can be made to testify to Schenck's dominion. The tension derives from the struggle for survival of the crew made up one sinister sicko, a majority of endearing innocents and a few sensible old salts like Boden against a man unhinged by the pursuit of power.
Scenes of the voyage are evocatively rendered. Nichols is a blue-water sailor and has a keen appreciation of ocean ways. He has clearly been in the North. The novel is very visual with little descriptive gems popping up throughout. "The bear appeared on the top of the floe, coming at them in a rolling series of bounds, rippling, ivory, a rainbow of mist flying off it in the sunlight. Its stare locked-on and certain."
Nichols also does a nice job with his male support characters capturing many little intimacies between them. "After a first silent beer, while the two men adjusted to their convivial state, Shred might say he found it more peaceable in Brooklyn with all its clamorous goings-on than with her indoors at home. Moyle might grunt, commiserating in his way."
Unfortunately Nichols doesn't do as well with the few female characters. They are cardboard cut-outs-either symbols or shadows and not very effective in either case. In fact, some readers may feel a bit as if they're trapped in a men's locker room but the feeling is subtle-probably because the minor male characters are so well drawn and appealingly human.
Over all, Nichols observes and reports with considerable charm although the novel is not charming. The carnage, greed, and excess grow with about the same intensity as the reader is caught up in the plot. Can't stop reading no matter what.