Spoiler Alert for AHAB’S WIFE

A very good and prescient friend gave me a book I needed to read this Christmas.  It is called Ahab’s Wife.   Even though I am writing a book which involves the usage of classic characters, I don’t approve of books like this at all.  It’s happening though more and more.  Perhaps this is related to something critic George Steiner warned about: the weight of literary criticism might become to heavy for the dwindling works of literary quality.  Like Broadway play revivals, maybe we have to fall back on the classics because we just can’t write them like they used to.

I really admired Wide Sargasso Sea, the first book of this type I tried.  This was a prequel to Jane Eyre.  As for Ahab’s Wife it can best be summed up as follows: “Reader, I married him.”  Not only does Una, the main character, marry Ahab, but after the great white whale takes him down to Davy Jones’ locker, Ismael, who alone survives to tell the tale, becomes her second, no, third husband.  Some critics have praised the book for its presentation of a feminine view of the whole whaling industry in general, and Ahab’s quest for revenge against the whale who took his leg.  For about 400 or so of the 666 pages, the reader may very well be enthralled by the author’s characters and the unfolding plot. After a while it all falls apart.  I cry foul though when dialogue from the great American classic novel appears either verbatim or with minimal change.

Sena Jeter Naslund may be capable of conjuring up some wild sea tales, and her protagonist can stand on her own two feet very well.  The problem is Ahab sounding like a pale echo of himself, (though his “poor, cannibal me,” is endearing,) and Ishmael sounding off without his wit.  When the passage, “Whenever I grow grim about the mouth; whenever it is a deep, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; whenever I feel like deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can,” flows in spontaneously from the great beyond, as an example of Ishmael’s conversation, I say the game is up.    If you haven’t read Moby Dick, you will think Naslund a genius.   When you see what shallow shoals you walk in, comparatively speaking, in the rest of the pages, you will realize that the above is, as Henry James like to say, THE REAL THING.

I think Naslund’s narrative might have been better without the scaffolding of Melville’s great whaling tale.  Would it have stood up though?  I can ask myself the same question is creating a story based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  Next time out I will sketch this all out.  There is a lot to be learned by reading AHAB”S WIFE.

ahabs wife

Running Aground

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As we get to the middle of the first month of the new year, I remain deeply grateful for the grant I received but as the plot thickened so did the mid beneath my boots.  Thinking, without thinking, I assumed the character who wrote the Ichabod journal would be British, Enoch Williams or Wilson.

Then the light went on. The Legend characters are Dutch; they form a tight knit circle.  So much of what I was creating for the journal, which is about one third of the book, was based on the British in New York, circa 1789.  Much may have to be changed though my grieving, modern man Richard remains OK.

This presents a challenge which opens up a precious opportunity since the church where I found salvation is a Dutch Reform church, Marble Collegiate in lower Manhattan.  Like the Old Dutch Church where Ichabod Crane fled the Headless Horseman, Marble was there when the pursuit took place.  It can figure in Enoch’s, or whatever Dutch name I may give him, flight to New York City.

The plan had been to have two ministers in the story, one rather disturbingly misguided, and the other like a best friend. The models for both are based on real ministers though the helpful one may be a composite of two ministers. The fact that both clergymen can be placed in their proper settings is extremely satisfying. The history of the Dutch and the Dutch Reform church will be a challenging study.