- By James Kaufman
- James Kaufmann reviews books regularly for the Monitor. By the first pink streaks of dawn abaft I awoke to see my cousin staring windward, a look of horror on his lean youthful face. I sat up. Ramsdell, Reed, and Ray were also staring speechless across the heavy sea. The third boat was about two ship's lengths from us, rising on the crests, then dipping out of sight. At first I could not make out what was happening in it. Then, as the rays of the rising sun raked the wave tops, the boat was suddenly presented to our sight on the slope of a wave. The body of a black man lay across the thwart amidships. Henricks, using a boarding knife, was extracting the heart.... The year is 1821. The location is the Pacific Ocean some 1,500 miles off Chile. The players are the survivors of the sunken Essex, a whaler stove in by a renegade sperm whale eight weeks earlier. The narrator is the Essex's captain, George Pollard Jr. And the subject is cannibalism. It may seem horrifying now, but cannibalism was not unusual in the early 19th century, especially in situations as dire as shipwreck. But Henry Carlisle's exceptionally fine and meditative novel, a fictional account of a historic tragedy, does not dwell on the sensational. Instead, the novel's focus is on Pollard, a character modeled after the actual captain of an ill-fated whaling ship, and on how the wrecking of the Essex and later of his second command, the Two Brothers, leads him to a trying voyage of the soul. Considered perhaps the most promising young whaler on Nantucket before the voyage of the Essex, Pollard experiences over the course of ''The Jonah Man'' troubles of Jobian proportion. Because of the two wrecks, no owner will give him command of a ship, and he is finally reduced to becoming a night watchman. Because of the cannibalism in which Pollard eventually participated (and which included his own young cousin among the victims), islanders regard him with a mixture of hatred and fear. The deaths haunt him. Most of ''The Jonah Man'' is in diary form, with the last of the novel's five sections showing the struggle of Pollard to find himself. He realizes, finally, that he ''let happen what Worth (another whaling captain) warned against; I let myself become what the Island saw me as: a man with a fouled past, stripped of consequence, a town character. ''At first the change was only an outward one. Gradually it worked inward, until I knew myself only as a humble night watchman.'' The moment of truth for Pollard comes when Ralph Waldo Emerson, invited to speak at the opening of the island's new Atheneum, requests a public meeting with Pollard. Pollard's journal records the interchange between Emerson and the broken captain about the lottery that led to the death of young Owen Coffin, Pollard's cousin. Pollard explains that he offered to take the young man's place , but ''even as I pleaded with him, I knew he would not accept it. ... There are things more important than life, sir. Owen Coffin knew that then. I know it now.'' ''The Jonah Man'' addresses a number of deep philosophical and moral issues, among them how the essential matters of life sometimes loom larger than life itself. Yet the story is not a mere springboard. The philosophical speculations grow directly from it. And a gripping story it is: It is impossible to read this novel without meditating on the experience of George Pollard, who, in spite of his tragedies, manages finally to build a statelier mansion from the wreckage of his life.
The Jonah Man, by Henry Carlisle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 260 pp. $13.95.