Ordinary Seamen and Ordinary Nobodies
New and Noteworthy
The Ordinary Seaman
Atlantic Monthly Press, $23 hard
The number of books I have read that take place aboard ships with virtually all-male casts of characters can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. They're guy books, right? For this reason, I doubt I would ever have even picked up a novel called The Ordinary Seaman (Atlantic Monthly Press, $23 hard) if it hadn't been written by Francisco Goldman, a writer who rocketed to the top of my list with his first book, The Long Night of White Chickens, a love story/murder mystery/political novel fashioned from the raw materials of Goldman's unique half-Guatemalan, half-Boston Jewish background.
Aside from its insights about love and memory, aside from its rich, intimate, Spanish-flavored narrative voice, White Chickens established Francisco Goldman as a man with a mission: to speak clearly and passionately of the situation of Central America and Central Americans. Between the two novels, he continued to pursue that end in journalistic venues, including an important op-ed piece in The New York Times. Now, with The Ordinary Seaman, the mission is re-united with the brilliant fictive voice in a very different, very dark narrative context.
The plot of The Ordinary Seaman is mythic in its outlines -- a ship of fools, a voyage of the damned -- but in fact it is based on a real situation. In 1982, Goldman came upon a bizarre news story in the New York Daily News. A group of sailors had been brought from Central America as crew for a ship, then were abandoned onboard the vessel in its dock in a devastated portion of the Brooklyn waterfront. They lived there for months without heat, plumbing, or electricity, unpaid and trapped in what the paper termed a "floating hellhole." Goldman made his way down to the port, saw the ship, met the crew, listened to their stories.
More than a decade later, after spending some time at sea himself, Goldman finally sat down to write a novel based on the situation of those sailors. His fictional crew is made up of nine Hondurans, five Nicaraguans, and a Guatemalan; most important are the two we meet first, 19-year-old Esteban Gaitan, fresh out of the Sandinista army, and aging Bernardo Puyano, a career ship's waiter. These two board a plane out of Managua for Kennedy Airport, where they and the other crew members are met by a strange, hairy-shouldered yanqui in basketball shorts who drives them out to their vessel, the Urus.
From that minute, any optimism the characters may cautiously feel about their new lives in this new place begins to fade. The drive through the rubble and industrial detritus of the shipyard foreshadows the desolation that is about to overtake them. The Captain and the First Mate show up, seeming somehow less than lovable and trustworthy, and right off the bat deliver bad news: As the seamen may have surmised, the torn-up looking ship needs a bit of repair before she can sail. Not only are they not leaving by sea, they should not poke their noses out on land either. The waterfront neighborhoods are very tough, and while they are in port, they will neither be paid nor have any legal status in the U.S. There's no telling what will happen to them, warns the Captain, if they venture into "los proyectos." An attempt to challenge this dictum ends in bloody disaster.
The next section of the book begins: "Now, one hundred and eleven nights later, Esteban lies awake shivering in two rank T-shirts and jeans and rotted socks under his thin blanket on his mattress on the floor." Having survived the terrors of guerilla warfare, Esteban's second chance consists of having been virtually left to die with this group of unfortunates, who have only each other's company, a bag of infested rice and some sardines left from a previous voyage to keep them going. Fall turns to winter; occasionally the bosses show up with a few six-packs and a gristly barbecue, news of "promotions" and "raises," or more often, just orders and excuses.
It is the character of Esteban -- young and pure-hearted and full of the will to live despite all that has befallen him -- that is the emotional heart that keeps pulsing warmth and life into this chilling, dismal situation. The three central relationships of the book, each drawn by Goldman with great poignancy, are Esteban's -- first, with the martyred girl who was his lover during the war, portrayed through flashbacks; then with Bernardo, the old waiter, who annoys him at first but becomes a mentor and father figure, and finally with a sassy, kind-hearted Latina manicurist, Joaquina, whom he meets when he finally ventures off the ship into the depths of Brooklyn, foraging for food and hope, which come in slabs of raw beef and sets of Parcheesi.
It is in the Spanish-speaking neighborhoods of immigrant Brooklyn where rays of light begin to fall on this narrative, in a beauty shop run by a gay Cuban, in a restaurant full of Dominicans with a friendly waitress. Here the darkness finally gives way to hope, though not before a life has been lost through the sleazoid negligence and scamming of the bosses.
This book offers many miscellaneous delights, such as a short course on Spanish cursing, clever takes on New York yuppies, social workers, and prep-school shaman wannabes, and an unusual, romantic point of view on heterosexual anal sex. Goldman puts so much spice, energy, and intelligence into his descriptions and characterizations, I am sure he could write about anything -- lacrosse, perhaps, or hydraulic engines, or even the ultimate guy-subject, war -- and produce a book even I would love. -- Marion Winik