The Ordinary Seaman
by Francisco Goldman
Atlantic Monthly Press, 387 pp., $23.00
Francisco Goldman is a young, part-Guatemalan writer and journalist who has lived and worked for long periods in both the US and Central America. In 1993 he published a remarkable first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens, in which he sought to pull together the often conflicting perspectives of his double background. The novel revolved around the story of Flor de Mayo Puac, a young Indian woman sent as a child to be the house-servant of a half-Guatemalan, half-American family living in a Boston suburb. She grows up there, virtually adopted into the family, before returning to her home country to head an orphanage for the children of the disappeared. Then, in the midst of the terror of the early Eighties, she is found murdered, and the son of the American family, who is deeply attached to Flor, flies south to investigate her death. Out of this situation Goldman constructed a story which was very much that of a particular family, but which he developed in such a way as to encompass the tortured history of the Guatemalan civil war, a story that went beyond the summary account of the newspapers to convey the bitter, byzantine realities of daily life in a terrorized society.
Goldman’s new novel is similarly topical. The Ordinary Seaman tells the story of a group of poor, uneducated men—Nicaraguans and Hondurans, desperate to escape the poverty and violence of their countries—who spend what little money they have to fly to New York to work as the crew of the Urus, an outgoing freighter. Once they arrive, they discover that the ship is in fact derelict. There is not the least prospect of its going to sea. They are stranded, lacking legal papers and money, and knowing no one. For some six months—throughout the hot summer and into the increasing chill of fall—the isolated and hapless crew of the rat-infested Urus is pointlessly worked and irregularly fed, before being abandoned altogether by the ship’s owner. They have been shipwrecked, in effect, at the heart of the modern world.
In The Ordinary Seaman, Goldman is trying to see history through the eyes of the people upon whom it falls most heavily, the miserable, mostly anonymous masses whose blurred photographs and unlucky stories are scattered throughout the newspapers every day, as in recent accounts of the deaf Mexican trinket vendors held captive in Queens. Their exploitation is a commonplace—not so much dirty business as business as usual. And, indeed, the novel, as Goldman explains in an afterword, is based on truth. In the early Eighties, he read about such an abandoned crew in the New York Daily News; subsequently, he interviewed some of the men. From this material he has fashioned a strange and suggestive historical novel of the present moment.
Elias, the owner and captain of the Urus, is a dilettantish adventurer and small-time scammer who has bought the ship for cheap with the idea of fixing it up quickly …