MoonOverPittsburgh

Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

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Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Reid Stowe's Outerbridge Reach

A couple of years ago, in trying to follow up on an author about whom I'd read raves but of whose work I'd read nothing, I bought a used hardcover at a lovely used bookstore in my hometown. The novel, Outerbridge Reach, by Robert Stone, was neither the book nor the author I'd had in mind, but, as is so often the case, I ended up grateful for the fortuity of what was in some objective sense a mistake.

Instead of being the high literary concept I'd expected, I found myself reading a more conventional drama, in which our unlikely protagonist finds himself thrust into the position of piloting his employer boatbuilder's newest sailboat in a solo circumnavigation race. The boat, it turns out, leaves much to be desired in the breech, as does the protagonist's tenacity for the rigors of solo big water sailing.

I grew up in a fairly nautical family, and some of my earliest, happiest memories are of me and various permutations of family members on a succession of modest sailboats. Although one relative has lived most of his adult life working on and sailing boats, and has made some modest open water excursions both on his own boat and as crew on others' more opulent boats, neither he nor anyone else I know has crossed an ocean, alone or in company. The prospect of such solitude tests the limits of comprehension, like the thought of counting to a billion, or of all the unfathomable distance starlight has traveled to trespass on your retinas.

In Stone's story (spoiler alert), our protagonist struggles mightily to hold to the plan, his boat and his psyche deteriorating around him as he navigates the southern hemisphere, and he wanders afield. Then commences the more surreal aspect of the novel, wholly unexpected, as the conventional expectations, both those of the protagonist qua person and the reader, are frustrated again and again.

I thought the work terribly imaginative, and I still do, within the realm of accessible fiction really quit astounding. I read it in a few furious days, and intend to return to it again (although I believe I lent my copy without expectation of return (the only way to lend books) to my nautical relation). But recently I happened across an article about a middle-aged sailer named Reid Stowe, and I learned that Stone's premise was not cut from whole cloth.

Long Days' Journey, a rare feature-length article at ESPN.com, details Stowe's plan to shatter the prior record by spending 1000 days alone at sea without stops for reprovisioning or even so much as a sighting of land. During his planned itinerary, he will circle the Earth, in the contiguous seas of the southern hemisphere, four times on his homemade 70-foot gaff-rigged schooner.

Where I found echoes of Stone's plot, which in truth must be sounds as to which his novel served as echo, was in the brief description of Stowe's mentor and model.

The sailors who comprise the elite fraternity of circumnavigators speak in hushed tones when the name Bernard Moitessier is brought up. Leading the inaugural Golden Globe round-the-world sailboat race of 1968, Moitessier, a Frenchman born in Saigon in 1925, held an insurmountable lead upon rounding Cape Horn (at the tip of South America), en route to near-assured victory and world celebrity status awaiting him at the finish line in London. For reasons known only to himself at the time, he decided not to sail on toward England, but opted instead to sail eastward across the Atlantic, under the tip of Africa and halfway around the world again to Tahiti.

The words he wrote in his log of his decision to turn his back on the race captured his feelings toward a society he viewed as too roughneck and greedy: "Last night was too hard to take. I really felt sick at the thought of getting back to Europe, back to the snake pit."

Moitessier later wrote of his pivotal decision in a manner that seems reminiscent of Colonel Kurtz (the part played by Marlon Brando) in "Apocalypse Now": "Why am I doing this? Imagine yourself in the forest of the Amazon. Suddenly you come upon a small temple of an ancient lost civilization. You are not simply going back and say, 'I have found a temple, a civilization nobody knows.' You are going to stay there, try to decipher it … and then you discover that 100 kilometers on is another temple, only the main temple. Would you return?"

Stone's protagonist ended up nowhere as hospitable as Tahiti, but his meandering departure from an organized around-the-world race, as well as the tacit repudiation it represented, must have sounded first in Stone's knowledge of Moitessier's similar choice, if indeed the entire novel didn't grow out of Moitessier's story.

Why are we so captivated by those who just wander off, drop out, refuse entirely the yoke of modern existence? Some of these iconoclasts, I suppose, change things, and so their legacies live on with their legends. Iconoclasts and revolutionaries by very definition, however, aren't drop-outs; rather, they engage what they reject directly and grapple with its fierce resistance until they wrestle from it some compromise. Those who disappear, however, by their very nature tend to go unremarked. For each one of these we can summon to mind, there are hundreds if not thousans more whose disappearance was wholly unremarked, and whose discoveries, such as they were, were lost to posterity in the very anonymity such withdrawals engender.

The mythology of the wayward, thus, is just that, a littany of fictions and confabulations. The artists who give birth to these visions, principally writers, sometimes invite the suggestion that they are themselves drop-outs, recluses. Salinger comes to mind, and he may be the exception that proves the countervailing rule: to write or compose, to conceive, is itself a form of engagement, and so at best artists are iconoclasts, no matter how much it pleases them to imagine that they are more esoteric creatures.

Perhaps our pleasure in narratives of disappearance sounds in some collective spirit of resistance to social norms in all their insidious incarnations. Or maybe we just like a good story, and it's easier to turn a narrative of utter retreat into an interesting story than it is to craft a quotidian vision that manages to inspire and illuminate. I used to imagine myself the author of grandiose fictions, novels of moment, profound works that speak to the larger questions that plague us. I imagined, as these visions faded, that I was simply growing pulling in my horizons, acquiescing to some insecurity in my imagination. Now I wonder sometimes whether the works with veneer or verisimilitude haunted by characters uncomfortably familiar offer the more irksome visions, lead us to greater discoveries, inspire more thoroughgoing esteem, and serve as better vehicles for an author's vision.

I don't suppose it matters if one doesn't write at all. But in lieu of writing, the imagining writing has always been a satisfying diversion.

If Stowe's voyage begins as plans, I imagine I'll link to whatever coverage I can find. I look forward to keeping an eye on him, and I wish him godspeed, although I cannot tell you why.

And for those with a long enough memory to wonder, the author I had intended to find that Saturday afternoon was Richard Powers, about whom I've posted before. It took me a year or two more before I finally picked up one of his books and learned quickly that he deserves all the praise he has received and then some. Since then, he has become one of my few favorite authors, and it is with great anticipation but disciplined patience that I am working my way back through his corpus.

2 Comments:

Blogger Reid Stowe said...

I am the blogger for Reid Stowe. Just read your eloquent piece on Reid and Robert Stone's very enjoyable work which I have also read. I wanted you to know that Reid Stowe and Soanya Ahmad departed Hoboken, N.J. yesterday for day one of their one thousand days at sea ocean odyssey. You can access Reid's blog at http://1000daysatsea.blogspot.com/

7:35 PM  
Anonymous charlie doane said...

Stone's "Outerbridge Reach" is actually based very explicitly on the story of Donald Crowhurst, who also raced in the Golden Globe in 1968-69 with Moitessier. Just like Stone's protagonist, Crowhurst had an unreliable boat and an unstable state of mind and sought to "fake" his voyage around the world. In the end he killed himself and his boat was found adrift in the South Atlantic. Many of the details in Stone's story were cribbed from Crowhurst's. The best account is The Last Strange Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, published in 1970. The most recent is A Voyage for Madmen by Peter Nichols, which relates the story of the entire race, including Moitessier's abandonment of it.

10:45 AM  

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