THE HANDSOME SAILOR By LARRY DUBERSTEIN The Permanent Press 266 pages $24 hardcover
"Don't you buy it," Herman Melville warned his friend Sarah Morewood, about Moby-Dick, "- don't you read it, because it is by no means the sort of book for you. It is not a piece of fine feminine Spitalfields silk - but it is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships' cables & hawsers . . . Warn all gentle fastidious people from so much as peeping into the book - on the risk of a lumbago and sciatics."
One towering tragedy of American literature is that arguably the greatest novel in American literature destroyed the career of its author. Melville knew what a feat he'd brought off, and he had a sense of humor about what fate doubtless had in store. His critics were dead serious, alas. "Not worth the money asked for it," declared the Boston Post, "either as a literary work or as a mass of printed paper." According to the later recollections of his wife, Elizabeth, Melville was largely indifferent to such attacks - he had been similarly nonchalant about the huge popular success of his sexy early books about the South Seas, Typee and Omoo - but the mean spirit of the furor that greeted Moby-Dick took its toll.
An impacted rage overtakes Melville's subsequent novel, Pierre (1852), and a need for cash ("Dollars damn me," he wrote his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne) condemned him to a decade of potboilers and privately published verse before he gave up his writing career once and for all in 1856. He moved his family to Manhattan and went to work as a Customs inspector in New York harbor, where he worked for nearly 20 years while writing verse on Sunday, burning any letters he received and keeping no journals. Next to nothing is known about Melville's life in these years, apart from a pair of tragic calamities: One son, Malcolm, committed suicide in his bedroom at age 18 while the rest of the family was downstairs; the surviving son, Stanwix, died young as well, a vagrant in London. An inheritance permitted Melville to retire from Customs in 1885; when he died at age 72 in 1891, the text of Billy Budd, a complete short novel, was discovered among his papers and went unpublished for another 30 years.
In many respects, Melville remains as remote from us as his idol Shakespeare. The mystery of his life is beyond the reach of biographers. The only way to approach him truthfully is through the imagination, either by reading him or by conjuring his physical presence inside one's own skin, as Larry Duberstein has done to a passionate, ingeniously detailed extreme in his novel The Handsome Sailor.
A novel about Melville? I have to admit I cringed. Reading fiction about any great artist - especially a fiction writer - becomes a dangerous substitute for reckoning with the actual work. But Duberstein's understanding of Melville is so thorough, his fidelity to what is known so disciplined, and his own prose so lush, it defies any sense of "borrowed" literary space; it is fire stolen from heaven. He compresses Melville's life into five brief, symphonic chapters. Duberstein is not out to compete with his protagonist; this is no Moby-Herm. His main focus is that veiled period in the 1880s when Melville was a spry, silvery-bearded Manhattanite, walking 60 blocks to work every morning to save on tram fare.
In a short preamble, we glimpse him from a distance, on the arm of a beautiful young woman 33 years his junior. (A mistress? An illegitimate daughter?) Chapter 2 gives us a day in the life: Melville hiking to work, bantering with co-workers, pacing off an imaginary landscape mural in Central Park, trying to catch the right word - "rosemarine" - to describe a sunset sky in a poem he's working on:
". . . Just a short line in a short poem, but he had beat against it two hours last night without a scrap of satisfaction, and then today at the District the line came perfect. "The hollow of these liquid hills" was just how he saw it and needed to say it, as precisely as he sees these solid modelled hills . . ."
The Handsome Sailor's zigzagging time span and multiplicity of voices isn't "Melvillean" but - fittingly - "Joycean," an ocean of consciousness squeezed with gusto through the sponge of one man's waking day. The long-ago suicide of his son Macky harpoons him in memory:
"Something drumming at his temples - blood? - something keening in his ears. And it is nothing like thought, it is raw knowledge, blind certainty, that grips him by the throat as he rams through the bolted door. Certainty that he has come to the worst moment of his life."
The novel takes as its epigraph that buoyant, playfully charged warning about Moby-Dick to the mysterious Sarah Morewood, and Chapter 3 gives us Sarah herself, Melville's neighbor in the Berkshires during the heady two-year period in which he wrote Moby-Dick and Pierre. Duberstein imagines them lovers - a subtle, plausible fantasy, given the confident, soul-mating fire in that note. "Mr. Typee," she calls him, and indeed he sounds like a classic Type A - driven, manic, an ecstatic fire-breather.