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.