The new book by Robert Stone is a tough Irish-American novel set mainly in and around New York harbor. Its themes are contemporary and touched with cruelty; its prose is as hard as that of John O’Hara, which is high praise. Though basically it is an action story, and Stone’s considerable reputation is that of a hard-boiled suspense novelist, the reflective reader will find in the pages of Outerbridge Reach a good deal on which to meditate. Like John Converse, the very unheroic hero of Stone’s earlier novel Dog Soldiers, the central figure of Outerbridge Reach is a weak man in a tough situation; that can be either an odd predilection of Stone’s imagination, a reflection on suburban society, or an almost Old Testament denunciation of a society choking on its own naiveté, weakness, and self-disgust. The toughness of Stone’s novels has been readily accepted as on the surface; but there’s an inner toughness of judgment that, when one stubs one’s toe on it, is even more impressive.
Owen Browne is presented to us as an Annapolis graduate, class of 1968, a Vietnam veteran, but now working as a salesman and copywriter for a boat company somewhere off Long Island Sound, perhaps in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Reasonably prosperous, and happily though a bit uneasily married to Anne, with an adolescent daughter, Margaret—Owen as he enters his mid-forties is latently restless and dissatisfied with his life. Apparently he is pretty good at his job, but does not feel that it’s much of a job. Salesmanship, as a career, does not fulfill him, any more than service, again doing paperwork, fulfilled him in the navy. So when Matt Hylan, the head of the conglomerate containing Altan Marine Corporation, pulls out of a solo sailing race around the world, Browne volunteers to replace him.
As a great many people see, and some of them say, this is a reckless venture. Browne, though a competent knockabout sailor, has no open-ocean sailing experience. The people at Altan Marine are businessmen and publicity agents; none of them knows anything about deep-sea sailing. The head of the firm, Hylan, who got into the project and then disappeared, is described as a young playboy, whose escapades have led him into bankruptcy, perhaps defalcation, and almost certainly a multitude of other financial malpractices. For purposes of the race, Browne can have the best of the boats in the current Altan line, but nobody seems to have inquired whether it has been built or rebuilt with an eye to sailing long distances across open oceans.
This seems a matter of some importance. A forty-foot craft designed for the day cruises of a rich owner around the Sound, down the Inland Waterway, or perhaps as far as Bar Harbor, can hardly be taken with confidence around Cape Horn or through the Sunda Straits without some extensive reconstruction. But in the novel, nobody pays much attention to the dreary, detailed, and expensive business …