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 of rebuilding Owen Browne’s vessel. Instead, major attention is concentrated on preparing a motion picture documenting the great adventure. A man named Strickland, with several successful documentaries to his credit, is hired to produce it; he has a studio, he has assistants, he actually turns up on the spot. But at about this point a reader with a moderate sense of the practical realities will start to feel faintly seasick.
Sailing solo around the world requires a great many days and an equal number of nights; during most of this time, the only item of cinematographic interest will be limitless expanses of open water. If the sailor has to be at the same time navigator, housekeeper, radio operator, and movie maker, what kind of movie can he be expected to produce? Suppose that in this prolonged race the Altan entry has the misfortune to finish out of the money, what will be the box-office appeal of what is essentially a home movie?
No matter: the movie maker is hired, though of course he can’t go on the trip; but he takes some preliminary footage of the Browne family going about their daily routines while getting ready for Owen’s departure. This quite extended period gives us a chance to get acquainted with Strickland the movie maker, who turns out to be a character quite as underhanded and exploitative as Owen Browne is bumbling and foolish. Stone’s contempt for paperwork and publicity people—of whom he has himself been one—verges on the malignant. Not surprisingly, Strickland is a shady and manipulative character, whose previous work in a vaguely anti-Vietnam documentary has given him only a questionable standing on the fringe of the hippie movement. Besides, he is a predatory and voracious womanizer. Though apparently well supplied from his frequently replenished collection of usable women, Strickland turns his eyes on Anne, and such is his magnetism that he introduces himself into her bed almost before Owen’s little boat has halfway crossed its first ocean.
The whole venture, in short, is ill-fated from the beginning. Browne takes his vessel out for a shakedown cruise on the Sound, and manages to fall overboard. He hires an excellent carpenter to install some cabinets, but gets into an argument with the man over Vietnam and comes by to find that all his new cabinetry has been carefully removed and his money contemptuously returned. (This episode of moral rigor contrasts sharply with the loose indifference of Strickland, whose earlier movie had supposedly been anti-Vietnam but who accommodates easily to Browne’s gung-ho militarism.) Temperamentally, Owen Browne is not presented as a man of assured action or solid character. About some things he is rigidly righteous, about other things, sloppy and egotistical. He is a hollow man who repeatedly impresses others as intensely disagreeable. Strickland thinks him a creep and has not the slightest hesitation about cuckolding him. The workers at the shipyard despise him, his best friends at Annapolis don’t think him fit to be in the race, his father-in-law can hardly bring himself to pronounce Owen’s name, his wife has no faith in him, and he gets on his daughter’s nerves. On every level and in every relationship, he appears to be a barely presentable pain in the ass.
Why then does Owen, when his boat starts to disintegrate in the first heavy weather it encounters, when he sees clearly that he’s been turned out on the Atlantic in a flashy, flimsy, plastic cockleshell, without the faintest chance of making it around the world—why doesn’t he radio for help and put into the nearest port? Other competitors in the race do it. Later on, perhaps, when he has started to hallucinate, when he has demolished the transponder which is his major piece of electronic gear, and even more when he has started to drift at random, making up an imaginary log with fake positions, invented weather, phony episodes—by then it is clearly too late. But the moment when he slips around the bend passes unobtrusively by. I think it may be the moment when deep in the South Atlantic, he sails up to a little volcanic island—real or fantastic, there’s no knowing—and simply forgets about the race for a while.
After a few days his rebellion assumed a routine. During the brief periods of darkness he would head just off the wind with only a storm jib up, sailing away from the island. With first light, he would come about and head back toward the peaks. Every day, winds permitting, he got a little bolder and approached the shore more closely, feeling his way in on the sounding device. There seemed to be no bottom anywhere.
The high-seas operator at Whiskey Oscar Oscar kept him apprised of the race into which he betrayed himself.
Somewhere in here he’s losing track. Previously he had seemed brave if distinctly foolish; excessively righteous, perhaps, but not crazy. But when he starts talking with his dead father and inventing artificial personalities for himself, it’s clear that the core personality, such as it is, is disintegrating.
It is hard to see the story except—begging Mr. Stone’s pardon—as a form of allegory. Owen Browne is a straight-arrow, boy-scout type graduated to junior executive. As seen through Robert Stone’s contemptuous, disillusioned eyes, he is soft yet pretends to be macho; he is the victim of his own commercial rhetoric; he is righteously patriotic; he is sentimentally neuter, and he is just aware enough of his own weakness to be dissatisfied with it. Between the invisible rogue Hylan and the office organization, he has just enough energy to bring about his own destruction. Through the story of Owen Browne the disgrace and disintegration of the Vietnam War toll like funeral bells. That war, which the author evidently recalls as a savage, meaningless slaughter-orgy sinking gradually into a morass of murderous drug and anti-drug operations, lies heavily on the imagination of Robert Stone. Even the language of Dog Soldiers degenerates into a sledgehammer repetition of conventional obscenities. The bleakness of Owen Browne’s judgment of himself and his life goes far beyond any language at all.
The title of the book makes the theme of collapse and disintegration all the more resonant. Outerbridge Reach is a strip of desolate marshland off the Kill van Kull on the back side of Staten Island, where all manner of broken-down maritime junk is left to molder away. Derelict ferry boats, ruined barges, and slimy, abandoned lighters lie there half-buried in mud. It is a place that Browne visits just once, briefly, early in the book—apparently it was part of his wife’s family property. But Stone would hardly have given such prominence in the title to this eerie emblem of utter desolation if he had not wanted it to stand for an important element of his novel.
The Fall of Valor was the title of a very different novel some years ago; it suggests the understated vein of quiet grief that Stone weaves into the story of Owen Browne—a weak and appallingly deluded man, but one who hardly deserves the storm of disgrace and ridicule with which (as we understand) his name will be covered. The sour workers at Altan shipyard, who sneer at Owen while stealing as much of his money as they dare, are perfectly right about him. In their dialect he’s a pussy, he’s a preppy, he’s a fuckin’ hype artist. And yet one of them says, half bemusedly, thinking of the race, “My bet would be this—either he wins or he dies.” That, for better or worse, is part of Owen Browne, too.
Out in the middle of the South Atlantic somewhere, he cleared the tangle of dirty compromises in which he had trapped himself by fastening heavy weights to his legs and stepping overboard. As for Strickland, the movie maker who had seemed impenetrably tough and successful in his cynicism, he—though encumbered by no guilt over Vietnam and no responsibility for the race, or shame for the “hero’s” widow whom he had seduced and robbed—he winds up more painfully in Outerbridge Reach than anybody else. Having saved him for the end, the author goes after Strickland with a particular measure of sadistic vengeance that suggests a latent streak of moral feeling. He is despoiled of the cheap pickings he has acquired by pretending to be Anne’s lover, he is abandoned by her, he is handed (by her father’s agents) a savage professional beating. This ends the novel with a bang, but leaves the reader looking around for any significant character in the world of Outerbridge Reach who does not deserve, for sins of omission or commission, an equivalent punishment.
The story is well paced, the dialogue crisp and forceful, the interweaving of illusions with maritime reveries deftly managed. On a couple of occasions—when Strickland in an early chapter either fascinates or rapes a girl named Rachel just after he meets her, and in later passages when Browne first starts to hallucinate—one isn’t altogether sure how far to take the implications. This reader took it that Strickland was a straight sadist and Browne was an illassembled and weak-sinewed man. As for mythical or cosmic overtones, like those attached to the Ancient Mariner and the White Whale, this reader didn’t recognize, or feel the need of, any. Outerbridge Reach is a fine book without transcendental overtones. It’s a strong, unhappy novel about a stage in the life of our times—nearly a quarter century ago—that ought to have something less sullen and despairing to say for itsef, but apparently isn’t going to.
March 26, 1992