Article Published: Sunday, December 28, 2003

Charting depths of emotion
1860 Arctic voyage explores dark recesses of men's souls
By Robin Vidimos
Special to The Denver Post

Tales of whaling, sailing and exploration are high-interest literary fare. The shelves (and best-seller lists) are full of books including "The Perfect Storm : A True Story of Men Against the Sea' and "Blue Latitudes,' nonfiction firmly rooted in historical record. These works are long on telling what happened but understandably short on revealing why the men involved were driven to such risks. Such an impersonal approach is fitting for factual accounts; raw emotional truths are best explored through fiction.

"The Rope Eater' does exactly the latter. This story of an Arctic journey, set in the 1860s, provides plenty of realistic chill. But what sets this novel apart from its many adventuring cousins is the stark insight with which debut author Ben Jones charts the emotional journey of his narrator, Brendan Kane. Advertisement
It is Kane's imagination, greater than that of his small-town parents, that leads him to enlist as a foot soldier in the Union Army. But the fields of dead soldiers, remnants of someone's victory, kill his dreams of glory. By the time he deserts, all he knows is that he must escape the carnage. After passing through New York City, he finds his way to the whaling town of New Bedford.

He is approached by Capt. Griffin and asked to join the crew of the Narthex. She's not a whaler, by the looks of her, and neither is she manned by a whaling crew. Most of her crew are former prisoners who find the offer by Mr. West, the trip's benefactor, more attractive than a jail cell. It is an offer that works for rudderless Kane, as well: two years of hard work in the isolation of the Arctic north, with a possibility of a big payout at the end of the journey.
A church narthex is a place where the faithful gather before entering into worship, and the Narthex is a vessel on which the unwashed gather before embarking on adventure. The goal of the voyage is not clear. Some crew members envision mining riches, others believe they are off to discover a lake full of whales. The possible reward, though, seems less a motivation for this crew than the simple escape from their unpleasant realities.
The man in charge of the voyage is also a misfit, no small achievement in the world of merchant sailors. Capt. Griffin seems capable, though he confines his three-handed boiler-tender, Aziz, below decks, presumably because of his deformity. The real director of the voyage is Dr. Architeuthis, a man as mysterious as the giant squid that is his namesake.

The voyage starts smoothly enough; the men fall into the expected routines. But as fall rolls into winter and the sunlight disappears, the voyage becomes more difficult. Kane does not ally himself with either of the crew's groups, preferring instead to spend time in the boiler room talking with Aziz. It is from Aziz that he hears the tale, one of desperation and the cost of survival, that gives "The Rope Eater' its title.

As the ship pushes north, Architeuthis becomes more absorbed in the work of gathering and evaluating scientific samples and in charting their course. The discovery of a log of tropical hardwood on an ice floe confirms the purpose of the journey. The men are headed north in search of a land of tropical beauty, an impossible paradise thought to be hidden among the northern glacier fields. It is a goal that is never questioned, driven only by the doctor's obsessive dedication to his cause.

When the ship is caught in ice, the crew is forced to abandon ship. Like the rope eater of Aziz's tale, the men are driven to impossible lengths to survive. The result is hardly a pretty story, but in Jones' capable hands, it is one that rings true. The sound of the ice crystals battering against a tarp, the sight of gangrenous limbs and the nearly blind determination of men pushed beyond any reasonable or understandable limit come together in a powerful tale.

Jones does not drive his character's actions, but he is a writer with a firm hand. Kane wastes no narrative breath, though his grasp on sanity comes to seem no stronger than that of his mates as the story plays out.
"The Rope Eater' comes to fruition as a fantastic tale and one in which the participants go to unbelievable lengths, not because of a survival instinct but because of an instinct that drives a thirst for something more. What exactly that something is differs from person to person. One sailor hopes the riches will help him settle away from the sea to raise rabbits. Both Mr. West and Dr. Architeuthis long for an individualized kind of fame. Perhaps Kane only wants to reclaim his dreams.

Each detail is expertly selected with an eye to completing a stunning whole. Under this guise of an adventure story, Jones leads his readers on an exploration of the dark corners of men's souls. The resulting sight is not pretty, but it is as understandable as it is compelling.

Robin Vidimos is a freelance writer who reviews books for The Denver Post and Buzz in the 'Burbs.

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