Cover image for The handsome sailor
The handsome sailor
Duberstein, Larry.
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Publication Information:
Sag Harbor, N.Y. : Permanent Press, [1998]

Physical Description:
267 pages ; 23 cm
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As he labored on his masterpiece Moby Dick in 1851, Herman Melville was a popular and charismatic young author. One year later, this Melville -- successful, outgoing, knowable -- had gone underground.

Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

Herman Melville, author of that famous first line, "Call me Ishmael," is best known for his masterpiece, Moby Dick. He wrote a few other works that have garnered literary attention, but after completing Moby Dick in 1851, he faded into obscurity (at least during his lifetime). Duberstein (The Alibi Breakfast, Permanent, 1995) attempts to re-create Melville's life after he wrote his great novel. The book takes place mainly in 1882 while Melville is an inspector of customs in New York City. Dissatisfied with wife Elizabeth even though he appreciates her taking care of the house and the children, Melville has an affair with a woman named Cora whom he meets while on the job. A flashback set in 1850 in the Berkshires shows Melville writing Moby Dick and having yet another affair with neighbor Sarah while his wife is pregnant. Readers with little or no knowledge of Melville's life and works will be confused by this novel, which jumps unnecessarily from past to present and from inner to outer monologs as characters are randomly introduced. All in all, this is a marginal purchase.‘Robin Nesbitt, Hilltop Branch Lib., Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One     It is the 24th of May, 1883, a breezy noontime at East River and lower Manhattan Bay in New York. Here today, after fourteen years of extraordinary labor--inside the caissons, on the rising block, at the drawing-board--the bridge to Brooklyn opens, as a public thoroughfare. Hung from a million strands of steel, a road across broad water!     Sunlight plays in the band, catching a red jacket sleeve, winking off the oboe, dodging among the drums. Out in the harbor, boats are gridlocked: who knows how they got there, or how they will get away? The filthy water is barely visible in the interstices of smokestack, hull, and sail. Your own feet are barely visible, for that matter, more presumed than glimpsed.     The speeches have begun, and mark how the speeches grow. Ten minutes from Mr. Hewitt, fifteen from Dr. Storrs, more than twenty from the Mayor. It is as though the disease of speeching is progressive.     No one minds too much, though. No one listens to speeches at a wild party such as this. Up and down South Street, brash sailors shove their way from keg to keg, while candy butchers cry out like crows and street arabs peck at every gentleman's pocket. A happy kennel of humanity.     Past Burling Slip, down Water Street, stands the trio we have come to see: a man, a woman, and a child. They are a safe enough distance from the hearing of any speeches, yet close enough to feel the democratic jostling (maidservants and lawyers vying for a look at President Arthur) and to admire these miraculously risen granite towers, the harplike stream of steel depending.     From a distance, we might guess the woman's age at forty. Hazel eyes, chestnut hair, and some outdoor color in her cheeks. Her gent is definitely older, past fifty, in a dark and slightly dated suit. He looks distinguished nonetheless, his rough black beard woven with gray, blue eyes narrowed and watchful. Maybe it is his posture that gives him the look of command: head high, back locked ramrod straight, a proud and almost regal stance.     The young boy resembles neither (skin as white as a codfish belly, pumpkin-colored hair) as he entrusts a hand to each, and tugs away with constant questions. He does appear happy and they appear, at a glance, a small happy family.     In fact they are not a family at all. The attractive woman is no one's mother and no one's wife anymore, either--though she was both, not long ago. And she is only thirty-three this month, though that was an easy error to make, given her companion, and our natural tendency to average them toward a common denominator.     Still, even the carnival sharp would never have guessed that this upright athletic fellow, whose bristling presence seems electrically charged, has celebrated his sixty-third birthday--or endured it, at least. He does have a wife, not two miles from here, and one living son, who prefers to stay a few thousand miles to the west. He has the son and two daughters, the youngest of whom is twenty-eight.     So what we see is not what we appear to see; it is 1883, remember, modern times are upon us! We must come a good deal closer for a good deal longer if we are to learn even a little about this threesome, and particularly about the vigorous bearded gentleman, who happens to be one of the great men of the century--with Lincoln, Edison, Eakins, and the like--though on this afternoon in May, late in the century and late in his life, no one knows it.     No one. Far from being widely hailed, he is commonly thought to be long since dead, if he is thought of at all. Even within the confines of his family (where he is known to be extant) he is most frequently called eccentric, a delicate way of saying unstable.     Certifiable, they would readily have agreed had they seen him in this neighborhood one April evening six years ago, hurrying up the temporary gangway to the Manhattan tower of the bridge. He got near the top and stood there crowing, flushed and erumpent, on humming ale.     He did it in fun, of course, as he told the wire-winders who climbed from their trapeze seats to lead him back down to the anchorage. He had sat the crow's nest of old sailing vessels, he explained, and was always drawn to such stations, high above the rolling water. "Parterres of seaweed on the terraces of swells!" he gave assurance.     "He's just an old salt, Johnny, like you or me," said the taller of his two escorts. "Give him a few cents for another tot of grog." WEDNESDAY (1882)     "It's six." Lizzie's voice; cock-crow. Or hen-crow.     Six o'clock it is, and here in a rumpled bed is our sturdy undervalued sexagenarian, looking every day of his chronologic age. Shorn of the watery bright surround and of the ruddy cheek pinched by brandy, shorn of hat and cane and gay companions. It is a year before all that, a very different Wednesday--though much the same for our protagonist as five hundred Wednesdays prior.     A dim world at this hour. His is a north-facing room in a narrow brick row-house, and it will be late afternoon before a little angled sunlight leaks into the narrow window. The cretonne drapes will still be charcoal gray, the bed-posts black cast iron, and the fine old afghan (slightly frayed) predominantly midnight blue.     This theme of darkness is not unwelcome, or accidental, to judge by the cluttered mahogany desk or the dark stained mahogany book-case above it. Even the books are darksome in their leather bindings: olive, umber, raisin-black. And though the many sheets of paper were no doubt once a linen white, they look like enormous randomly settled ashes in the muting backstairs gloom.     "Ten after!" (Hen-crow, Book the 2nd.)     Lizzie is a blurred silhouette afloat between the door jambs, her features and the fretwork of her dress barely discernible to him. Especially indoors, his eyes are not good.     "Thank you, Lizzie," he says, and a moment later, when she has snugged the door behind her, he stands and steps to the tin basin. They have indoor plumbing, of course, but he finds the old system more soothing, at daybreak.     For a man who happens to hold public opinion in pretty low esteem, he will spend a deal of trouble on the business of wash-and-groom, so by the time he descends to the breakfast table he comes complete and polished as a stage player. Suit brushed, hair brushed, the copious beard brushed and clipped four-square.     This brindled nest is in a way his most prominent feature. It dwarfs his eyes and neat straight nose, and camouflages his mouth completely. Steering down the mahogany handrail, he is every bit of sixty-two, yet soak and shave him clean and the man might juvenesce by decades, a Channel-swimmer or Catskill-climber in the instant.     He never will shave it, though, no more than he will change his brand of shoe; certainly he is set in his ways. There is a shabby sort of elegance to him, as to his narrow house. True, he does not care much for public-opinion, but he cares a great deal for his own opinion, on every subject, not least the subject of himself. He replaces the public's opinion with his own, as it were, and his is a system considerably harsher.     As she hears him near the kitchen door, blackhaired Mattie will step back from her cook-stove. She can time him by unvarying footfalls--now--and know the door will swing ajar, know that she will speak her line ("Bilin," by which she means boiling) and that he will approach the ratcheting kettle with the air of a wartime general inspecting his troops, to measure out the coffee grounds. Mattie can make the water boil, he has conceded, but to measure out the grounds has proved a more demanding task.     Mattie is valuable. She can time an egg with the very best, and never once has she served him up the dreaded "Irish toast" which her predecessor Maureen served daily. ("Bread on one side, toast on the other," as he explicated the Irish toast to John Hoadley.) But we all have our failings.     Now he takes up the morning edition, folding it always to the column he is reading (folded and refolded constantly into quadrants, almost more folded than read) as he sits alone for the moment at the large ornate table. Then comes Mattie with the coffee pot and a rack of buttered toast. She will draw the drapes and raise the window sash exactly eight inches--not seven, not nine, but there is the faint hash mark on the frame to guide her--before stealing back to her kitchen to make up a tray for Bessie, the chronically ailing adult daughter.     He glances up from the newspaper as his wife comes in to join him, and a tiny smile occurs down in the depths of his beard, like a tiny white seashell down in a cubic yard of brine. "Good morning, Lizzie," he says.     "Did you have a good sleep?" she says.     "Yes, Lizzie. And you?"     "Oh, I am fine. Just concerned for you."     "No need at all, my dear, truly."     "You never smile, you know."     He would be surprised to hear this, had he not heard it last week and the week before. Today, though, it occurs to him to wonder: would Lizzie be surprised to hear that she never smiles? Or is that a given?     "You are kind to be concerned," he says. "Dullheadedness is my only symptom, and that always eases off in the walking. It will dissolve into the sunny air."     "You look so weary."     "Let us take solace from that, at least."     "Oh?"     "Well, my dear, you have found me a good deal worser than weary. Agitated--distracted--morose. Wouldn't I rather loom up a weary man than a madman, in the official version?"     "Oh, Herman."     "I do enjoy it when she Oh-Hermans you, man. It has such a nice home touch about it. No one ever Oh-Everts me, you know."     "Not ever, Evert?"     "Never, Oh-Herman. Though I am occasionally Oh-Christ-Duyckincked."     "I have done that much for you."     "All too often!"     "Nonsense. You can't Oh-Christ a man too often. It is a tonic absolute, like Doctor Wellgood's celery juice. And really, my friend, I would have Oh-Everted you nonstop if I had only understood the importance of it to your emotional substructure. I'd have done it daily--with charity, clarity, claret, and Grace everlasting."     "Oh, Herman."     "Do you know, Lizzie, there are so many people I miss."     "Mackey."     "Most of all Mackey," he says, sorry to have started her, for he had been thinking only of Evert when he spoke. He hands his napkin to her now, to dam up the sudden freshet of tears. "So many others, too. Allan and dear Augusta. Duyckinck. There is no one to take Duyckinck's place--not remotely. He was my one contact of that sort any more. And do you know he is gone four years already?"     "Nor Mackey's place. No one takes anyone's place, I don't imagine."     "You are right, of course, Lizzie dear."     In the silence, sipping coffee, Herman remembers the first time he was able to smile after Mackey's death. The case of the Mad Hatters. Mr. Knox on one side of Broadway and Mr. Genin on the other, vying for the dandy's dollar. They put up a fancy footbridge for Mr. Genin's sake, then tore it down when Mr. Knox came caterwauling, and all in the name of hats-for-sale. It seemed one had to smile.     When he told the tale back home, he told it on a firm foundation of whiskey (might never have told it otherwise) but he also did believe in relief; believed in mercy; in smiling if you could smile. And Lizzie could not. Only the grieving was admissible at home. The good man pours from his pitcher clear and only brims the poison well.     And while he understood it, and grieved his full portion, it was likely then that he ceased to risk a smile at home. That was the least of it, in '67 and '68, as through the gloom flew arrows of guilt and blame; you caught one at many a door or portal. Blame he took, and guilt aplenty. More than once it overflowed, and engulfed her willy-nilly. Herman had not always been gentle with Lizzie, when deeply wounded by those arrows.     Meanwhile, Lizzie has turned her glance to the window and beyond, where sparrows have taken over a small linden tree. She is thinking that the birds are fatter than the spindly branches, and far more numerous than the sparse shade-side leaves. Most likely they have migrated from Union Square, where for years now the sparrow flock has proliferated grotesquely, blackening the skies. But by now their silence has stretched too far to let in this sort of conversation. Herman returns to the Herald, folds down a new quadrant, and feels her patting the back of his hand. When he looks up, a second later--or possibly five minutes--the door is swinging to a stop behind her.     Lizzie so sad. She never came back to life, the poor sad girl. A ghost walking, all these years; a mother's lot, no doubt.     But what is a father's lot? Why is a father less invested, or less damaged? Why is a father more blameworthy? Who do you blame, between the rock and the sea?     A man can't know the future, nor know how another man will respond. Thus I may say a quiet hello and you may claim I have tried to evade you. If I shout a hearty hello, you may call me disruptive of your peace. How does anyone predict what anyone else will think, or do?     Who could suspect that a boy fullgrown, a man--employed, responsible, outwardly sound--would ram a bullet through his ear. And who will pretend to know why? Who knows if something said or not said, done or not done, could have changed it?     And we don't know it, even looking backward we don't. What Mackey done he might have done without reference to anything said or done, by me or by persons unknown. We know nothing. Could have been some girl involved--ain't that the likeliest? Or some fool question of illusory honor, given his military hobby-horse.     It could have been an accident, Lord knows, if Lord is. We will never know.     So what is a man to do? Every day for fifteen years I have seen her face--so gray in her dress, so grave in her cap, so sad--and have wondered what to do. There is Stannie, and in a way, therefore, Stannie is "what to do."     If it weren't such a futility. When he is off in the watery blue distance, I can put him fine lines and maybe a two-dollar bill; one or the other may have its use. But when he is here (and how little he is here) it is not possible to speak the fine lines. For the most part, it is impossible to speak a line at all.     It is not Stannie's doing, that he goes a little sullen when he feels most tender-needy, nor mine to go fishblood when I feel aflame. We all know what to be, yet cannot be it.     There are two ways to eat the mango-fruit, as my colleague Doctor Longo put the case, five lifetimes yore in the wild Tahiti outback. You quarter it up and eat outward toward the skin, or you peel it and eat inward toward the core. Just so you may proceed from argument to truth, or from truth to argument; either way the going gets hard. The seed is hard, the skin is hard, and either way your eating stops short, somewhere in the middle.     Ah the good Doctor, in all his sotted ribald wit!     Manhattan has sprawled uptown. It has raced on past the Croton Reservoir, past Central Park, until the brooks and muddy farms of Harlem are paving over. Five or six stories of residential masonry are quickly risen, block after block, 70th Street, 80th Street, points north. And Broadway is an ongoing hurly-burly whose chaotic miles of interlocking shops, of clashing broughams and omnibuses, Red Birds and Blue Birds, our protagonist sees every day, from the soles of his feet. No buses for him.     For here is a man who once climbed off a packet-boat with a month of nothing but sea legs underneath him, stepped onto British soil, and announced to his lazy astonished shipboard friends that they were setting off together for breakfast in Canterbury (Heel toe, you pilgrims!), eighteen miles of pleasant strolling to get a good ham-and-egg appetite.     The spirit ran higher then, but the legs were no stronger than they are right now. At sixty-two, Herman still covers a minimum six miles daily, his roundtrip distance between workplace and home. It saves his pennies to stroll (six cents going and six coming back, so much the more pennies for oysters and ale) but he does it more for the flavor of air, and the feel of being under sail. And then there is his profound discomfort (more than physical, less than metaphysical) at sitting inside the fetid rattling Third Avenue car. Whenever he watches it lumber past him, Herman conjures a farmyard image, of the chicken coop, with a hundred twitching heads wriggling desperately toward some slot of sky.     Lizzie does not approve of the air. In the city, particularly, it is dank and threatening. But Lizzie has always been suspicious of air, where Herman has always loved it, more simply than anything else. When living well, by his lights, he has lived directly in it--inside the heart of half a gale, whether blue-devil days or better. It might be a cool salt wind massaging your scalp, or a hillborne breeze tickling, your brainpan; even these filthy Manhattan gusts will bring you alive like smelling salts.     These days he must walk north, straight up the island. He preferred the worn old westerly footpath to the matronymic Gansevoort Pier, preferred the look of the older buildings. Everything on this new route, after all, is new, with nothing organic about or behind it. It did not happen so much as it was foisted on us by those who plumb for dollars. Thus it is fresh-built, under-built, and over-dressed, all according to how the dollars are best extracted.     Also true that younger legs were bearing him along the crosstown route, younger eyes were measuring up the passing circus. Still he feels strong, undeniably so, and the legs in particular almost freakishly so, more strengthened over time than depleted. Could he get up and go the eighteen miles for breakfast today? Easily. Copyright © 1998 Larry Duberstein. All rights reserved.