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 and selling it dear. “Import the cheapest possible crew,” he tells Mark, the inexperienced friend whom he has appointed first mate, “even have them pay their own airfare. Work night and day”—which means sixty hours or more a week, at barely more than a dollar an hour (of course he does not mean to pay anything until the ship is sold). Since the Urus has come supplied with a heap of cockroach-infested rice and some three hundred cans of sardines its previous owners happen to have left on board, Elias is conveniently spared the problem of feeding his crew.
The seamen are dismayed by the condition of the ship—Bernardo, the ship’s waiter who is the oldest member of the crew and one of the few with any actual experience of the sea, calls it “a broken eggshell”—but on the whole they are too attached to their dream of prosperity to do much except hope for the best. They work as they are told to do, and “all day long the industrial shriek of tools blasting iron numbed their…doubts.” Soon, however, closed off without any word from outside (Elias simply throws away the letters to their families and friends that they give him to mail), they grow restless and anxious. One night they venture off ship, but, as Elias has warned them would happen, they are set upon in the projects near the docks, beaten up, and robbed. After that, they are too terrified to leave the ship. Their one distraction is a stray cat that Bernardo sardonically calls Desastres and teaches to sit on command. What other ship can boast of such a mascot, they think. It is a distinction of sorts.
“Caguero de Muerte,” someone has scrawled on the side of the Urus, misspelling the words for “deathship” to read “shitter of death.” Elias, it turns out, is almost as entrapped by the Urus as the crew, since he cannot afford the circuit breakers he needs to make it saleable, and his berthing costs are mounting every day. He can’t let the crew go without risking exposure as a trafficker in illegal labor, but he knows he can’t keep them on much longer. In this limbo, even as conditions on board worsen, a perverse mixture of mutual dependency and fear grows between him and his crew.
To buy time, Elias throws a party and announces a general promotion. They should now consider themselves not just ordinary but able seamen. “Of course it can’t become official until you’ve served a year, I know that,” he says. “But I think we find ourselves in a situation far enough outside the norm that we can write our own rules, for now, and stand by them. So consider yourselves very able ordinary seamen. You deserve at least that much.”
The men know that they are being manipulated and mocked, but hopeless as they are, they can only play along. And Elias, in his own worsening situation, takes an increasingly sadistic pleasure in their subjection. Another day, he calls a lifeboat drill, looking on as the crew members jump to it—and find themselves rocking in mid-air in anticipation of the shipwreck that is the last thing they have to fear. Humiliation has become routine.
Still, after 111 days (in effect, the same day, repeated over and over again), any semblance of normality is proving difficult to maintain. Elias begins to show up less and less often. The crew’s clothes are grease-soaked, dirty, and ragged. The rice and sardines are running out. The weather is getting colder and colder. The men are consumed with disgust at their own filth, helplessness, and hunger, dependent by now on nothing but dreams and sexual fantasy.
A dead ship, a mass of inert iron provocatively shaped like a ship, holds no snug dreamers at night, just fifteen fucked up marineros shivering and waiting for sleep. Every night they send themselves out on the same forced marches through the same interior landscapes of recalled, imagined, and reimagined pleasures, mostly having to do with love.
But then, Goldman notes, “even the most pleasing and arousing and seemingly reliable love scenarios become harder and harder to bring to life after too many visits.” Even with the prospect of starvation before them, all the men can think to do is to go on waiting. They have been utterly stripped of whatever resources they had. “Time fills them,” Goldman says, “like the stagnant air in a flourishing mushroom cellar.”
The ordinary seaman of the title is Esteban, a nineteen-year-old veteran of the Sandinista special forces. When he boards the Urus, he affects a swaggering confidence, a brusque can-do determination—all the more so because he is in fact consumed by savage memories, especially of the death of his fiancée in a contra bomb explosion. His most precious possession is a Mickey Mouse watch, recovered from her body and stopped at the hour of her death, that he keeps wrapped in a sock.
Esteban bunks with Bernardo, and though at first they feel a mutual distrust—Bernardo likes to denounce the Sandinistas and to carry on about the noble English sea captains he served under in his youth—they come to care for each other. Bernardo is the only member of the crew to have seen through Elias from the beginning, but he is too old and too demoralized to try to do anything about their predicament. He can’t even help himself. When his beloved Desastres disappears he starts to hallucinate, convinced that he sees her slipping around a corner, smelling cat piss everywhere on the ship. And yet he does his best to save Esteban, who seems to him full of possibility, encouraging him to face the truth about the Urus and urging him to do the only sensible thing: leave the ship.
On the night of the 111th day, Esteban does. He is at first tentative and directionless as he explores the bleak docklands and surrounding streets. But he repeats the experiment night after night and quickly gains confidence, ranging ever farther afield. Soon he begins to pilfer things from trucks and warehouses—a bag of wood chips, a box full of Parcheesi sets, a bundle of extra-large underwear, two ducks, a side of beef—which, like Raleigh bearing prizes from the New World, he brings back to the astonished crew. After going nowhere, the Urus has at last made land. Free of the ship’s spell, Esteban is able to reconcile himself to the horrors of his past; before long he has fallen in love and is making plans to move in with the Mexican manicurist Joaquina, who gave him his first job, sweeping the sidewalk in front of her shop.
The crew’s ordeal is almost over as well. A “Ship Visitor,” a representative of the local organization that monitors maritime abuses, hears of the Urus, begins an investigation, and arranges the crew’s release. Most of them decide to follow Esteban into the vast immigrant population of New York, where they hope to find a place somewhere in the city’s underground economy. A few submit to being shipped back home. All of them thus return to the nameless, expectant crowd they emerged from at the start of the book. Elias and Mark also vanish, having covered their tracks carefully enough to escape detection, while the Urus itself has had its name painted over, and now lies, keeled over a little, way out from its pier: the crew, in a solitary act of bravado, has set it adrift.
Having endured, they are lucky—but then luck, as one of Goldman’s chapter headings has it, is not for everybody, and anonymity is hardly a certain refuge. Shortly before the arrival of the ship’s visitor, Bernardo, distracted by the ghostly presence of Desastres, spills hot cooking oil down his leg. The wound festers, and he is dumped off outside a public hospital, to die untended and unnoticed in a crowded corridor.
Yet for all the bleakness of its premise and ambiguity of its outcome, The Ordinary Seaman turns out to be a surprisingly optimistic book—a story of escape, not confinement, an adventure instead of a disaster. The crew’s ordeal almost fades in the bright light of Esteban’s discovery of America—an America of immigrants still alive to its original potential. This development suits Goldman’s own generous spirit, manifest in the headlong energy of his writing as well as in his evident fondness for his characters. And it complements the theme of love he repeatedly sounds. That theme, of course, is often a bitter one, accompanying the longings for sex and family that torment the crew in confinement.
On the whole, Goldman’s generosity adds nuance to his story, preventing it, even at its most horrific, from degenerating into a mere horror show. At times, however, it seems little more than an obliging display of good intentions. The relatively minor figure of the Ship Visitor has been granted a curiously outsize role. He is portrayed as a decent guy: middle-aged, divorced, thoughtful, melancholic, romantic, dedicated to his vocation, sympathetic to his helpless clients, even though his work exhausts him and, life at sea being what it is, the abuses he uncovers never stop. His presence, it seems, is meant to provide moral perspective on the crew’s plight, to show how it fits into the bigger picture of human suffering. But he has not only to recognize but also to represent in his own person the basic humanity of humanity. It is a bigger task than any character should be required to perform.
Having disappeared for most of the novel, the Ship Visitor is brought back at the end to collect the remaining sailors and send them home. He looks for the Urus, and is startled at first to miss it. Then he sees it, lying at a distance, and mentally rehearses a speech to his girlfriend:
Think of a pier, Ariadne…. And then think of what this so concrete object, a pier, represents, evokes: All the ships that have berthed there and all the ships that ever will, and all the faraway ports those ships have come from and are headed to, and all the hidden lives on those ships. And then think of that pier again when it’s empty. A pier with no ship berthed there. An emptiness, but a certain kind of emptiness. Kind of like love without lovers. Because in a way that’s what love is like, Ariadne, like that pier, and you and I, our love, our love is just one of the ships that have called there. And this Esteban, his is another….
The effort to recast the grim action of the novel in the kindly light of love seems a gesture, a straining after redemptiveness. The disappointment, however, that one feels here, at the novel’s end, is the more intense because of the achievement elsewhere. In The Ordinary Seaman Goldman has succeeded in transforming a piece of news, small, fugitive, and forgettable, into a strange and transfixing image—the derelict Urus, with its rust and rats, its dangling wires and hungry, dreaming sailors—an image that is remote, in the way that news of other people’s misfortune always is, but also oppressively familiar; a dark image that brings to light something of the deep misery that underlies the seeming progress of the modern world. That image stays in the mind.
December 4, 1997