"Blue at the Mizzen," by Patrick O'Brian. W.W. Norton. 262 pages. $24.
It amazed Samuel Johnson that 18th-century criminals would choose the Royal Navy instead of prison. "No man," he said, "will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned."
In our time readers in a multitude, most of whom would share Johnson's view of the crowding, stench, putrefying food, exhausting labor and physical danger of a wooden man-of-war, many of whom cannot distinguish a taffrail from a topgallant, have immersed themselves in the Aubrey/Maturin books by Patrick O'Brian. That series comes to its apparent close with "Blue at the Mizzen," the 20th volume.
The Napoleonic Wars have come to an end, and Jack Aubrey is sailing in command of the Surprise on what purports to be a hydrographical expedition to the Pacific, but which is in fact a mission on behalf of the British government to aid rebels fighting for the independence of Chile from Spain. He is accompanied, as always, by Stephen Maturin, physician, naturalist, Catalan nationalist and agent of the British espionage service.
The narrative picks up from the previous volume, "The Hundred Days": Aubrey is deeply discouraged that peace has apparently robbed him of his chance for promotion to admiral. Maturin, recovering from the loss of his wife, shows an interest in a lady naturalist.
Historical figures make appearances. In Chile, Aubrey and Maturin deal with Bernardo O'Higgins and Jose de San Martin, the fighters for Chilean independence, and the foul-mouthed Duke of Clarence, the future King William IV, places his natural son as a midshipman on the Surprise.
Everything to please the devoted reader of the previous books is here, and yet there are indications of fatigue in this long project.
O'Brian has always defied conventional construction. Compare his books with C.S. Forester's conventionally plotted Hornblower series to see O'Brian's distinctiveness. Long expanses in which very little appears to be going on are punctuated with brief accounts of violent action, as if O'Brian represents the alternating tedium and excitement of sea life mimetically.
But here, in the 20th volume, that tendency goes to an extreme. A substantial part of the narrative is carried out in letters written by Maturin. The fundamental problem of epistolary narrative -- the tendency to describe rather than to present -- is not overcome. Maturin's new romantic interest is barely sketched in, and the outcome of Aubrey's long quest for his own flag -- not to be disclosed in this review -- is handled in an offhand manner.
Patrick O'Brian was born in 1914, and his stated ambition has been to write a series of 20 books. Readers cannot reasonably expect any more.
If you do not already follow the Aubrey/Maturin series, do not even pick up this book. Find a copy of "Master and Commander," and start at the beginning.
If you have been along for the previous 19 books, you will want this one, no matter how attenuated, so that you can be present at the end of the voyage.
John McIntyre is chief of The Sun's copy desk, an adjunct instructor in journalism at Loyola College, a former graduate student in English literature and a hopeless landsman.