Arctic paradise
By Victoria Brownworth
Special To The Sun

In Ben Jones' mesmermizing debut novel, The Rope Eater (Doubleday, 304 pages, $24), Brendan Kane, a Union Army deserter, returns North after the Civil War and signs onto a two-year stint as a ship's mate on the Narthex, bound for the Arctic. The crew, a cadre of second-rate sailors, paroled prisoners and other misfits, does not initially know its destination. Far from civilization, they are informed that the trip, led by the enigmatic Mr. West and scientist-in-residence Dr. Architeuthis, seeks to search out a tropical paradise in the heart of the Arctic ice.

Under Dr. Architeuthis's tutelage, Kane learns to perform various navigational tasks. As the voyage continues through snow and ice, the crew are forced out onto the frozen wasteland much like Shackleton's band. The mettle of each is tested and Kane discovers his true self.

The horrifying metaphor of the rope eater runs through the novel: an African contortionist raised from birth to eat a continuous piece of thread, then string, then rope. The rope-eater story is told by the mysterious three-handed Aziz, the boiler-stoker.

As the novel evolves, the meaning of Aziz's tale is revealed. A heady mix of Melville's Moby Dick and Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, The Rope Eater melds breathtaking lyricism with gripping realism, producing a page-turning adventure that navigates that heart of darkness hidden within men's souls.

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