A Grand Novel of Grand Things

`THE wind sounded as though things had stopped putting up with him. When their patience was expended, Browne considered, things had the forbearance of an insect and the same random energy.... He was riding a decomposing piece of plastic through an Antarctic storm."

This rag of coarse prose torn from a key passage in "Outerbridge Reach" conveys something of the verbal texture Robert Stone has woven into this stunning novel. In the elegiac language of Nemesis, Stone recounts the voyage of Owen Browne, a troubled Connecticut yacht salesman, into the elemental quarter of the world. At a comfortless latitude where emotions are pressed against the raw surface of nature, Owen tests himself and the people close to him.

Though the novel hinges on Owen's lone journey, no less a party to the telling are the people Owen leaves behind him: his wife, Anne, a beautiful and alcoholic magazine executive, and Ron Strickland, a cynical documentary filmmaker who is, at least on some level, Stone's ironic self-portrait.

The triangle forms after Owen impetuously enters a round-the-world, single-handed sailing race. (He has almost no experience in solo sailing.) In a half-conscious gamble for public atonement, Owen takes the place of the owner of his boat-building company, who has disappeared one step ahead of a looming corporate scandal.

Ron enters the story on the heels of Owen's decision. A satirist whose documentaries subtly mock the illusions of his subjects, the filmmaker has been hired by the vanished yacht magnate's company to record the race as a piece of corporate propaganda. While supposedly cranking out publicity footage, Ron privately begins to develop a counter- project. Owen's good looks and military bearing (he is a Vietnam-era naval officer) scarcely conceal his corrosive self-doubts, and Ron senses that this originally commercial assignment may turn into psychodrama of a high order.

The early sections of "Outerbridge Reach," set in and around New York City, immerse readers in the characters' antipodean lifestyles: The filmmaker lives in an urban night world on the dark side of the Brownes' rustic Yankee bedroom community. In spite of his anesthetic cynicism, Ron's authenticity gives him, at least initially, a certain moral leverage over the dissolute suburbanites.

Owen, for his part, grows more estranged from his family, as the preparations for his solitary encounter with the sea bring him closer to the reckoning he's avoided since his tour of duty in Vietnam.

Once the race is underway, the Brownes' entire world begins to take on water: Owen's boat is nearly sunk in the midst of a southern gale, while back on land Anne is subjected to Ron's increasingly carnal attentions.

Drifting in the south Atlantic, Owen comes upon a rocky island, which he names "Invisibility," in honor of his fondest wish. Certain that the race is lost, Owen lets his hallucinatory unrest blossom into raving madness. Wandering among meadows of whale bone, communing with the horizon, he begins to plot a false course for himself, hoping to counterfeit a victory out of his disaster. His stay on "Invisibility" becomes his descent into the maelstrom of folly and loss.

As in his previously celebrated novels, "A Flag For Sunrise" and "Dog Soldiers," Stone has written grandly of grand things: His shameless ambition would strain the limits of taste if the narrative didn't pull the reader so magnetically toward the resolution of Anne and Owen's crisis.

As the novel plunges forward, Stone continually tosses up the remains of old stories. The Owen-Anne-Ron triangle obviously recalls Odysseus, Penelope, and the suitors; Owen's solo voyage brings to mind Lord Jim's leap into darkness; and Stone's bare but musical language everywhere echoes Hemingway.

The countless references, and the novel's persistent Biblical imagery, are more than academic: They remind the reader that when we go "back to nature" we take along all the heavy equipment of culture. The literary allusions that trace back and forth over the surface of "Outerbridge Reach" are, like lines on a map, vectors by which readers orient themselves in Stone's storm of imagined experience.

This is, in other words, a novel as much about artifice as about nature. No reader will miss the point that Ron is trying to film the story that Stone is actually setting down, or that the ambiguity that wraps the filmmaker's character signifies the author's own complicated role within his fictional enterprise. Ron tells a young art student that, to maintain his objectivity, he thinks of himself as the town clock; unimpressed, she responds, "Someday, man, someone's gonna be the clock on you."

While Stone oversees no easy arbitration of his appointed conflicts, neither does he close "Outerbridge Reach" in utter misery: Anne's final commitment suggests that we can, even in our bleakest seasons, continually re-invent ourselves.

It is always impossible to know if a book will last, and when an author so openly flaunts the relics of dead genius, a reader should challenge his every move. Nevertheless, whether it ultimately survives, "Outerbridge Reach" now seems to float among the shipwrecks of contemporary culture with a ghostly grace. The momentum of its allusions and the tonal power of Stone's voice come together to leave readers feeling that they, too, have passed through something uncommon and important. This is the mystique o f fable, the aftermath of the well-wrought tale.

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