The sailor with the crack in his skull is, you guessed it, McGlue, our murder-suspect and main character.
I spend way too much time in bookstores. What I do while browsing the displays and stacks is I read the first few pages of any book that looks like it has anything to do with ships and sailors. If there’s a picture of the ocean or waves or a drawing of a ship or a boat on the cover, I read the first few pages. If the word maritime, sea, navy, sailor, or any reference to anything even vaguely nautical appears on the cover, I crack that book open and lean on the shelf to read a few pages. While reading, I run through a checklist in the back of my mind. On that list there are plot elements, themes and character qualities that, over the years, have been ingrained into my gray matter. On my list are the critical elements that go into a great sea story.
I’m happy to report that McGlue, the slim novella by Ottessa Moshfegh, placed a messy red check mark, a bit like blood splatter, right next to five elements required for a great sea story. The amazing thing is, I checked these elements off my list while reading the first page:
– Alcohol-fueled adventure in a foreign port (Check)
– Sexual misconduct (Check)
– Crime (Triple-Check for MURDER!)
– Sailor shoving off from the pier, heading out to sea with a hangover (Check)
– Main character with cracked skull yet still alive (Check! + new item added to my list)
The sailor with the crack in his skull is, you guessed it, McGlue our murder-suspect, main character.
As any reader of this blog knows, I don’t go for the types of sea stories that glorify weapons, officers, Naval tradition or politics. Now, I can go for a bit of each of those, but if these things are wrapped tight around the main plot, I’m out. This book, has none of that. Set in the mid 1800s in ports across the Pacific, South America and New England (NY to Boston), the author uses this blurry sort of first person monologue to tell the story.
The plot progresses forward with McGlue tied to a bunk in a locked compartment below decks. He’s being taken back to New England to stand trail for murdering his friend Johnson. All the while McGlue is flashing back telling the story of his childhood, filled with dreadful mommy-issues. McGlue and Johnson become best of friends. They are hobos together, drinking and fighting their way from Boston to New York. An excellent foundation for a sea-faring bro-mance, by the way. McGlue and Johnson sign on as deckhands aboard a ship somewhere, maybe it was NY, maybe Baltimore — it’s hard to tell because there’s excessive amounts of alcohol involved. And they aren’t drinking beer. They are not beer-aholics. No, they are drinking liquor, cheap liquor and lots of it. All along, Johnson has issues with his father and McGlue with his mother, which fuels the psychiatric subplot. Periodically we flash to the present where McGlue is bound in the compartment aboard ship. He’s going through some of the most vivid and gut wrenching alcohol detox symptoms I’ve ever read about.
The sad thing is stories like this are almost never written. That’s why I was happy to find this slim novella about an alcoholic sailor / murder suspect on the shelf at Powell’s City of Books here in my home town of Portland, Oregon.
The author, Ottessa Moshfegh, has written for such prestigious publications as The Paris Review and the New Yorker. Moshfegh creates language and art together in this story. She leaves me scratching my head (not that there’s a crack in my skull) wondering how the hell she wrote this book. It’s authentic, I can tell you. I’ve spent years aboard ships, gotten absolutely shitfaced in foreign ports, had friendships that went horribly wrong. How can Ottessa Moshfegh know about all this. Has she been in the Merchant Marine, the Navy? Does she have a hardcore alcoholic sailor in her life? It makes me wonder? Perhaps, she is simply a great writer combining a bit of research with the voice of her muse. Either way, I like Ms. Moshfegh. I will be on the lookout for her books, especially if she stumbles into writing another sea story.
McGlue, by Ottessa Moshfegh, (118 pages) is published by Fence Books and received the Believer Book Award.
If you enjoy a good Sea Story,
these two salty tales are free on all eReaders:
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