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Moby Dick on Steroids?

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A white whale does not appear in Ian McGuire’s stomach-turning novel, The Great North. But the similarities with Herman Melville’s masterpiece are numerous. A whaling ship, the Volunteer, leaves from Yorkshire in 1859—instead of New England a couple of decades earlier. The ship is lost, and only one person survives, though he does not narrate the story in the first person, as does Melville’s Ishmael. There are innumerable details of hunting and cutting up whales for their blubber. But unlike Melville’s epic of evil and humanity, there is only evil in McGuire’s grisly story, replete with gratuitous violence and descriptions that are not for the faint-hearted. The Great North will be a great property for Quentin Tarantino, but if that happens, it’ll be another one of his movies that I will skip. I kept reading McGuire’s novel because of my loyalty to Melville, who in my mind has no equal.

The violence begins almost immediately when the crew of the Volunteer is still on land. The night before the ship’s departure, Henry Drax, a harpooner, who in the entire narrative never demonstrates a single human characteristic, kills and robs a man and then so brutally rapes a young black boy that he will probably not survive. Drax is also the filthiest creature I have ever encountered in any novel, reeking with the secretions of his violent life. It is questionable whether he has ever taken a bath. The ship he joins is slated for Greenland, late in the whaling season, and close to the time when winter approaches, but Drax probably has enough filth on his body to keep him warm.

Drax is not the main character. That role (thank God) is saved for Patrick Sumner, who signs northwateron as the ship’s surgeon. He’s got reason for doing so. Though he’s still young, 26 years old, he survived the Siege on Delhi, by thinking of his own interests and not those of the men he was supposed to take care of at the hospital. He was court-martialed and sent back to England. While in India, he also became addicted to opium, and by signing on as surgeon for the whaling ship, he’s able to see that the ship’s pharmacy is stocked with enough laudanum that he can get a good dose every night.

After the voyage has begun, his duties as surgeon are described as follows: “They come to him with wounds and bruises, headaches, ulcers, hemorrhoids, stomachaches, and swollen testicles. He gives them poultices and plasters, ointments and balms: Epson saults, calamine, ipecac. If nothing else works, he bleeds or blisters them, he induces painful vomiting, explosive diarrhea. They are grateful for these attentions, these signs of care, even when he is causing them discomfort or worse. They believe he is an educated man and that he must, therefore, know what he is about. They have a kind of faith in him—foolish and primitive perhaps, but real.” Sumner has little confidence in his own skills.

It doesn’t take long for Sumner and others to determine that the purpose of the voyage is not to hunt whales (for their oil) but to fake an accident that will result in the ship’s sinking—but within close range of another vessel that will rescue the crew. The ship’s owner, in cahoots with its captain, will make much more money from losing the ship because of the way that it has been insured than from whale oil. Also, the handwriting is on the wall for the end of the whale oil industry. But before the plan can be implemented, a series of ghastly incidents take place involving some of the more animal-like members of the crew. One of these is the killing of a polar bear that has torn off most of an oarsman’s arm. As the crew, in turn, attack the bear, this is the way the incident concludes: “With the third blow, [one of the men] pierces the bear’s heart and a great purple gout of blood comes steaming to the surface and spreads like India ink across her ragged white coat. The air is filled with a fetid blast of butchery and excrement….”

At least this time it’s a bear that is killed and not the similar violence that slowly reduces the crew from more than thirty to less than half a dozen. The fact is that virtually all of the men on the Volunteer are brutes in a lawless environment where you’re pretty much able to kill another man and not be punished for your crime. One of the characters articulates the situation as follows: “The law is just a name they give to what a certain kind of men prefer,” but not the men on this ship, including the captain, who is soon murdered and then replaced with another equally questionable leader.

I admit that McGuire’s pacing of the story rarely permits a breathing space before the next despicable act occurs. It’s the relentless pace of the narrative that draws the reader in, but the “don’t look now” response you will probably feel may make you wish you were reading Moby Dick.

Ian McGuire: The North Water

Henry Holt, 255 pp., $27

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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