Dec/Jan 2009

BOAT PEOPLE

Ed Park


Just over one hundred pages long, Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine is a document that could, with a little effort, be ripped from its spine, stuffed inside a large bottle, and tossed end over end into the sea. The publishing history of Stanley Crawford’s sad, serene fiction resembles the fate of a message so transmitted, a hermetically sealed SOS riding out the decades. First issued by Knopf in 1972, the novel resurfaced sixteen years later thanks to Living Batch Press, with an aggressively drab cover resembling that of a Dover Thrift Edition. Now Dalkey has netted it from oblivion once more, and this re-rediscovery well suits the book’s elegant obsession with time and memory. As the titular character muses about her husband’s suicide, “it seems rather an almost gradual process . . . as if, through some gentle law of nature, his disappearance would be followed by his gradual reemergence, that he would come back, so on, so forth.”

Log weds form and function; it’s a book about a lachrymal life lived entirely at sea that uses the comma splice, the ragged right-hand margin, the pounding rhythms caught by Crawford’s unerring ear and eye, to set the reader at sea herself. Chapter 5 begins with a litany: “Unguentine, suicide, the business card, the barge, alcoholic’s leap into the sea, bottle, grey lips, boughs dragging in sea currents.” An explanation follows soon enough, but for the space of that single verbless sentence, we’re happily helpless, a wave of sensation breaking over us with each precisely captured item.

Plot has dissolved before the book even begins: Unguentine is dead, a man deliberately overboard, and now his widow will remember, fret, regret, and, like a figure out of Beckett, go on. The barge she and Unguentine created over decades—a would-be pleasure dome, full of wonders both natural and manmade, without the couple once setting foot on shore—is a metaphor for marriage, of course, and the singularly unhappy state of theirs washes nearly every page, whatever its wonders, with tears. Submerged thoughts are subject to decay, dramatically illustrated in a letter Mrs. U. never gives her husband, in which she attempts to explicate “this whole sequence of events which I now believe is leading us absolutely nowhere. owhere. where. here. ere. re. e.”

At one point, Unguentine “fastened down and hooked up the five hundred sails each the size of a manly handkerchief, each subtly controlled by the cable system from the pilot-house where he had installed a great lever, hand-carved and amazing, with which the sails might be trimmed at three speeds, Slow, Moderate, Fast.” Like all perfect books, everything is a metaphor for everything else: Unguentine’s genius for invention and ceaseless need to control are reflected in that sentence, as is Crawford’s subtly restrained prose style itself.

Readers familiar with Crawford’s Petroleum Man (2005), a die-hard materialist’s weltanschauung in one-sided epistolary form, or Some Instructions to My Wife Concerning the Upkeep of the House and Marriage and to My Son and Daughter Concerning the Conduct of Their Childhood (1978), which is exactly what it says it is, will find in Mrs. Unguentine a crucial countervoice, who serves as antidote to the brutally (if hilariously) domineering men of those more recent books.

But even as Crawford re-creates the Unguentines’ sorry and often speechless union, he keeps his sense of the absurd, even cartoonish. “Unguentine drank; my fury went into tossing huge salads,” his wife recounts. Accidentally rupturing the hull with a board, she is “expecting to be enveloped in a shower of water or a jumbled whirlpool, be pursued or floated up the stairs and shot into the air as the whole barge crumbled into pieces and sank into the mud and water”—you can almost hear the Looney Tunes score.

Crawford turns things topsy-turvy at every opportunity, teasing out each absurdity and nuance of their waterborne circumstances. Unguentine has “terrestrial asthma,” getting land sick the way others get seasick; one night, the sky is “dimmed by the golden dusts of some far desert, a land in the air.”

The barge simultaneously suggests the Garden of Eden and Noah’s ark. In a prelude to the central heartbreak of the book, the couple mate, in a scene of deeply comic weirdness. Unguentine emerges “naked from the trees, his organ full and erect and painted purple,” and the critters gather as the pair get it on: “Our dogs, sensing an event taking place, came and sat respectfully at a distance at the edge of the lawn, bright eyes with flicking, hairy lids and limp, swinging tongues, panting. Soon they were joined by the cat and the goat, also some of the chickens, one of the ducks.”

For all its surface unreality and seeming lack of story, Log is tremendously moving. Though not quite a page-turner—there’s a density to the prose that prevents reading too many chapters at a stretch—Crawford tenaciously maintains focus on the marriage long since undone. (Indeed, it was doomed from the first, a wedding held in absentia: “We were married by telephone when the great cable was laid across the ocean floor well before the weather turned so foul,” Mrs. Unguentine relates on the first page.) Just as Unguentine powers the barge with his five hundred handkerchief-size sails, Crawford shovels his many metaphors into the book’s emotional engine.

Like that second the in its title, Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine is a stubborn creation that demands attention, and that odd surname is right on the money: This formally seamless book stings and soothes, like the most potent ointment, applied to literature too content to play it far too safe.

Ed Park is a founding editor of The Believer and the author of Personal Days, a novel published this year by Random House.

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