Caputo's 'The Voyage': strangers go out to sea

November 07, 1999|By Jeff Danziger | Jeff Danziger,Special to the Sun

"The Voyage," by Philip Caputo. Alfred A. Knopf. 415 pages. $26.

There is no frigate like a book, said Emily Whatshername, who didn't know much about boats. If you take your three sons, put them on a gleaming and well-appointed schooner and send them off to learn something about themselves, telling them not to come back for some months, you can at least expect a good story. If you do this at the beginning of a century you can claim that the future will require tougher, more self-sufficient men.

My boys, the sea will beat the weakness out of you. Lastly, if you can make this stick in a long narrative, replete with adventures ashore, ending with wreckage and renewal, you've accomplished something, which Caputo sort of has.

Caputo says that this idea for "The Voyage" was inspired by an parallel incident in the Massachussets-Maine branch of his family. The book has a relentless down-east flavor where if you aren't a real salty character, you're nobody. This tends to produce a number of stockish characters, who spout expected pronouncements, but maybe, it must be admitted, that's what they really were like.

The nautical facet of the book is accurate and well-researched, although I am no able seaman. Nautical terms known to the general public are accompanied by those of the more arcane variety, and even some archaic (since the book takes place at the turn of the last century) and I was constantly reaching for my "Capt. Windy's Nautical Intelligencer" every time the author shifted into impress-the-landlubbers mode.

This is actually fine for an author to do, except that, like the use of a foreign language, it can leave the reader befuddled. When tragedy strikes, we'd be more convinced if we knew why the binnacle was athwart the gunwales, and so on.

Caputo is firmly in the tough, manly school of writing, the kind that allows his characters to not explain themselves, and to let their spartan speech stand for something great and meaningful left unsaid. I used to think this was effective, but these days I grow impatient waiting for the answer.

Why a man would send his sons, who don't seem like terribly bad kids, rather nice actually, into harm's way, is incomprehensible to me here in the flaccid Nineties. Only one of them is actually skilled enough for the high seas. The father's action is either one of great prescience, or just careless madness, and left unexplained, it rankles. Caputo's first novel, "Rumor of War" (1977), a much-celebrated if less analyzed Vietnam novel, took the same turns, full of a lot of masculine squinting into the smoke of battle. In a Vietnam novel an author can get away with that, since nutsiness is part of the explanation, but in few other places. Real men should be able to explain themselves.

Nevertheless, it's a good read, lots of splashing around asea and brawling ashore. John Gardner said that all American novels follow one of two themes, you go on a trip or a stranger comes to town. Mr. Caputo has added his own theme, a stranger sends you on a trip.

Jeff Danziger has written for the New York Daily News, the Christian Science Monitor and is a political cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times syndicate. He is the author of "Rising Like the Tucson," a Vietnam War novel, and a children's book, "The Champlain Monster."

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