MY BOOK WORLD
A rough little book, this. And one that encapsulates a man’s short life within the span of 145 pages. But is it set in the 19th century? It would seem so: no cars, no televisions, no phones. Only horse and cart, books, bars, and whores for entertainment. Is it about sailors? Would seem to be: McGlue, a young man, is at sea much of the time, at sea with regard to his life, accused of the murder of his best mate, Johnson. Yet he can’t recall; a certain blow to his head in a brawl keeps his memories at bay, even while he awaits in prison—without drink, which he misses terribly. Does the book have a homophobic tinge to it, or is it merely a representation of a sailor’s life in the 19th century—a time in which McGlue refers to the cabin boy as a fag or fagger? Is this slim tome Moby Dick (sans the whale) compressed into a story Melville couldn’t tell or couldn’t have gotten published in his time?
Yet I’m also mystified by McGlue’s use of language. At first, it seems readers have been transported into 19th-century Massachusetts, but the author can’t decide whether McGlue is an uneducated galoot or a literary scholar. At one point, he proclaims, “. . . just anything but not to have to be here, sitting, lying down with myself like this” (64). Oh, one thinks, his scant schooling has remained intact. He has conjugated correctly the verb for reclining. Fine, but McGlue is not consistent. A few pages later he says, “I just lay down, cold as it is, until Dwelly disappears” (71). As a commoner, has he backslid into conflating the verb “lie” with its cousin “lay”? Perhaps, you say, the author is portraying McGlue’s unpolished education: his battered brain retrieving the correct verb only some of the time. Okay. But what about this example? At one point, McGlue remembers to employ the subjunctive mood, signaling the hypothetical nature of a situation: “If he were here I’d throw an arm around him, pat his head and thank him” (107). Most uneducated would just say, If he was here. Several sentences down, McGlue says, “Before me was a gentlemen . . .” (107). Why does he use the plural instead of “gentleman?” Is it an antiquated linguistic quirk I’m unaware of, or is he once again attempting to be blue collar when his earlier instinct is to be more erudite?
Some may wonder why I would belabor this issue, but I continue to be puzzled. Are McGlue’s inconsistencies genuinely his, or do they belong to the author? Does she have an adequate grasp of her characterization of him, of the language? If she’s unsure about McGlue’s usage, then what does it say, on the whole, about her story? Which, by the way, is terribly engrossing, a mini-dip into what an 1800s “sea shanty” might have been. Because whatever else the novella may be, it seems to delve into the love and affection two men have for one another at a time in which matie Johnson has no proper way for him to express his carnal desires for McGlue. And the conflict ends in death . . . for both. I think.
TUES: A Writer's Wit | Jean Chatzky
WEDS: A Writer's Wit | Margaret Mitchell
THURS: A Writer's Wit | Ivan Turgenev
FRI: My Book World | Julia Alvarez, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents