Arctic Treasure
By Patrick Anderson
Monday, December 29, 2003; Page C03

Ben Jones's extraordinary first novel is a gripping arctic adventure that is transformed by his dazzling prose into something much more. In the early 1860s, young Brendan Kane lives "in a small town, in a small house with a church on a rise next door." His parents are "hardworking and unremarkable people," and the boy is restless. "When I was seventeen, the pound of my heart drove me out on a wet, fragrant spring day."

He drifts south, works for a time in a sordid tavern, then hears a patriotic speech and is moved to join the Union Army. He discovers the horrors of war and chooses to desert. Venturing into New York City, he is caught up in the draft riots ("I was buried, trampled, struck at; faces loomed over me"), and then he is recruited to join a sea voyage. "I have a job, if you'd like it, on a boat," the sea captain says. ". . . It is quite an opportunity."
The captain has one eye with "a milky spot on it, from which a delicate webbing spread over the whole of his eye." Brendan boards the Narthex, "a small and squat ship" with "grim lines," and meets his fellow crewmen. They are men like himself, with little to lose. Several have been released from prison for this voyage. "Have you ever beaten a man to death with your hands?" one asks.

They are bound for the Arctic and have been promised vast wealth. Many of them believe they are headed for gold mines. Only three men know the truth. Besides the captain, they are Dr. Architeuthis and West, the owner of the ship. The doctor "was tall and blond; his face was chiseled and flawless. . . . It seemed impossible not to admire him." West stays mostly in his cabin, sometimes playing his Pianola, and when he appears, he "looked on us as if we were tools that he was appraising for use in some repellent duty." They sail full of hope, amid stunning scenery. "We were treated to a steady diet of Arctic atmospherics -- rainbows and pillars of light and sundogs -- the phenomena where glimmering hints of other suns and soft arcs of light surround our one sun." Farther north, past Greenland, "Under the low sun's light, the ridges of the icebergs were extraordinary reds and yellows, shot through with brass and copper, the shadows hyacinthine, blue-black."

One night, working on deck, one of the men "began a shanty under his breath and I joined in softly. We moved about the deck as we worked, and the shanty caught, like candles lit from candles, from man to man, each singing softly, a susurration that joined the lap of the waves and the whistle of the wind as we moved into the darkness." Under pressure from the crew, West reveals their destination. He has found a journal written by his great-uncle, an explorer, that tells of a polar paradise: "At the end, he found a temperate archipelago covered by trees of fantastic colors that grew from the heat of the earth rather than the sun -- a lush Garden of Eden in the heart of the Arctic." Here, West promises, fame and fortune await them all.

Needless to say, this bold mission comes to grief. The men encounter storms, shipwreck, starvation, madness, murder. They dodge icebergs and survive on seal blubber. The mounting horrors are described in pitiless detail. "West's toes came off into his socks, and his feet were fully black, with streaks of black reaching above his knees." No one is more mad than the handsome doctor, who pushes them on relentlessly as temperatures drop to 50 degrees below zero. If any physical ordeal of this nature has been explored in more shattering detail, I don't know where. The intensity, the dark poetry, of Jones's writing is stunning.

"The Rope Eater" is remarkable simply as an adventure, but Jones seems to have more on his mind. Of course, the idea of mad leaders driving men to senseless deaths, all the while proclaiming light at the end of the tunnel, is not without resonance in our society. And the title of the novel is perhaps a further clue to the author's intentions. One of the crewmen, Aziz, is a Middle Easterner with a bizarre physical deformity that is unexplained until late in the novel, when he tells Brendan his story.

Aziz was born "at the edge of a vast black desert" to a people so poor and desperate that they sold their children to travelers who deformed them so that they could be circus performers. ("One had both eyes on one side of his head and the mouth on the other; another had no jaw and a long flickering tongue.") The most horrible deformity is for a child to be made a rope eater -- the particulars of which I will spare the reader. Aziz's father was a rope eater, and Aziz would have been one had he not escaped to the relative safety of the Narthex.

Jones, a young Yale graduate, devotes 15 pages to this agonizing parable, and I imagine his goal was to impart a certain universality to his story. Early in the novel, we glimpsed the horror of the Civil War, then we plunged into a mad quest for riches, and now we have seen new, unimagined cruelties halfway around the world. As poor Aziz concludes, life on this Earth "is a strife and a clashing." It is not a cheerful message, but it is brilliantly expressed in "The Rope Eater," which deserves to be one of the most admired novels of the new year.

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