(North Point)Most of us --- outside of rappers, Protestant ministers, and U. S. foreign policy makers --- want the world to be orderly and kind. We try our best to make it so in our private (and public) lives. But as Langewiesche reminds us, there is a vast portion of the globe that is never calm and containable --- even when it seems so. That is the ocean, that "incomprehensible vastness" that encompasses so much of the world.
"Since we live on land, and usually beyond sight of the sea, it is easy to forget that our world is an ocean world, and to ignore what in practice that means."
Some shores perhaps can be tamed, but beyond the horizon lies the wave-maker, an anarchic expanse, the open ocean of the high seas. Under its many names, and with variations in color and mood, this single ocean spreads across three fourths of the globe.
It is, he reminds us, after every patch of land comes to be claimed by this or that government, "a place that remains radically free."
It is truly another world --- and our literature reflects that: not only Joshua Slocum's masterful Sailing Alone Around the World, but Moby-Dick, Two Years Before the Mast, The Old Man and the Sea, and the surprise recent best-seller with a most perfect title, Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm.
It is, fortunately, worthy writing, and Langewiesche's mass of information on the 40,000 merchant ships that are abroad on the ocean, plus the thousands of other cruise, military, and private craft do catch one up.
They also induce no small terror. His retelling of a single act of piracy (it is now no less common than in the 18th century) directed against the merchant ship the Alondra Rainbow to steal $10,000,000 worth of aluminum ingots which includes setting captain and crew adrift in the Andaman Sea is more than a page turner. And his Junger-like recounting of the sinking of the Maltease Kristal filled with, of all things, molasses.
Can you imagine a spill of 28,000 of tons of molasses? Well, it happened. Fortunately, instead of befouling the shore of Northern Spain, where it foundered, it merely calmed the ocean in the midst of a raging storm, and perhaps made possible the survival of more than half of the unfortunate crew.
I'm on my knees in the booth, you are on the other side of the grille: let me stop the waves right now to make a confession to you. As a recent novelist pointed out, we reviewers adore thin books. No Dickens, Richardson, or Joyce for us! We get paid by the piece, and that pay includes the time to (presumably) read (and possibly) reread the book to be described.
When this one appeared in the mail, since it topped out at eighty-five pages --- only children's books, religious books and poetry come in such Weight-Watcher form. I skimmed the cover of this one, Library of Congress CIP pages, and dipped right in and finished it off in record time, not the least because of the sprightly writing. But when I got to the end, I thought, "This one does end abruptly, doesn't it?"
The author is interviewing two of the surviving pirates, those who stole the Alondra Rainbow who were subsequently nabbed by (of all things) a patrol boat out of Cathay, India.
Their arrest and conviction had been proclaimed around the world as an important message that disorder would not be tolerated on the high seas. But they knew the ocean better than most, and were just biding their time, unrepentant and undeterred.
And that's it for this work, at least until I read the fine print down at the end of the back cover, "Excerpt from The Outlaw Sea / Not for sale / Publication date: May 2004 / 256 pages.
O what the hell. It's a true gripper. If you have the patience, and don't forget, you might want to grab hold of this one when it comes out.--- M. A. Durrell