A fictional ship searches for survival in a post-nuclear world

The Last Ship, by William Brinkley. New York: Viking Penguin. 616 pp. $19.95. The Time: Just after a nuclear exchange by the two superpowers. The Story (whose grip never lets you go): One ship's search for survival upon the waters of the world. The Point of the novel, indelibly driven home: It does not matter who started the dread holocaust, it must never happen here.

The ``last ship'' of the title is the USS Nathan James. ``Rakish and swift in the water,'' she is a guided-missile destroyer (DDG), the first of her class. Deep in her magazines are 56 self-propelled missiles capable of inflicting devastation equal to nearly a thousand Hiroshimas. They are Tomahawks, so accurate they could find their own way through a selected window in the Kremlin.

Commanding the destroyer's crew of 250 men and 32 women is the nameless captain who tells her story. He is a good, decent man with considerable powers of leadership and some reservations about the seagoing role of women.

The target assigned to the Nathan James is the Russian city of Orel, her operating area the Barents Sea. The order for an immediate launch comes through, and 12 Tomahawks are fired as specified. Then total radio silence closes down. The captain and crew never learn who made the first strike in this war to end all worlds. They never find out if their own mission of obliteration has succeeded. The fate of home and loved ones is never known.

So begins their Flying Dutchman-like odyssey. They are condemned to rove the seas, not because their ship is plague-ridden, as in the legend, but because the continents are either destroyed outright or so contaminated that no life is safe.

First they must escape reprisal for their own act. They leave the operating area at flank speed, cross the North Sea, and grope their way up the Thames. Here they find total destruction, with nothing but gaunt ruins under the deadly cloud cover, and no sign of life. In terror they make for the open sea.

In the Bay of Biscay they are stalked by a Soviet submarine, which turns out to be as groping and beleaguered as they are. The two captains establish a communication link with ultimately surprising results.

The Nathan James's quest for sanctuary takes it next to the Mediterranean. Entering the Strait of Gibraltar, crew members look in vain for the great Rock, which has vanished, the victim of an atomic blast.

On the beach at Amalfi they at last discover signs of life. The captain leads a landing party. What they see as they near the beach is some 30 people in the last pitiable stages of disintegration and decay:

They stood in the bright sunshine, motionless figures in the sand, looking at us with a kind of staring vacancy. They seemed scarcely of this world, as though having crossed over into a world all their own, a nether world but recently invented and belonging neither to the living nor to the dead but to new beings in between. Phantoms, apparitions, they seemed, except for the faint and indistinct sounds that came from somewhere within that cluster and from the expressions that could be made out on those with sufficient faces left to form expressions. These were not those of phantoms. They stood as though holding secret and whispering intercourse with themselves, in solemn appraisal of these approaching figures from the sea.

Nothing in Brinkley's seven novels going back to the easygoing ``Don't Go Near the Water'' has prepared us for the Dante-esque power of this scene. They leave food and medicine, although their own supplies are running low. ``It was for ourselves really, not for them. Because they had once been what we were.''

More determined than ever, captain and crew resume their search. Some openly defy the captain's authority, wishing to go home at any cost. Near Suez the mutineers commandeer the ship's powerful launch, and in some agony of spirit the captain lets them go.

At long last the Nathan James finds an uncontaminated island in the far Pacific and the crew starts to build a colony.

To solve the haunting, ever-present problem of the preservation of the human race, the captain comes up with a solution that seems sensible: Each of the women has a cabin of her own, and five or six men are assigned to her in rotation. He himself remains apart from the arrangement but falls in love with his beautiful supply officer. An idyllic, danger-fraught secret affair ensues. Then the Soviet submarine, short of food but with nuclear fuel still in good supply, traces the Nathan James to her hideaway....

This is one of those rare novels whose sum is greater than its parts. Each episode is rendered with a sure hand by a writer who knows seafaring and the sea. But because of the tremendous subject matter, and the sense of terror and resolution that it engenders, ``The Last Ship'' generates a most extraordinary cumulative power. Here is a true classic in the old-new literature of survival.

Biographer and novelist Burke Wilkinson is a commander in the United States Naval Reserve.

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