Voyage to the North Star

Peter Nichols, Author Carroll & Graf Publishers $24 (352p) ISBN 978-0-7867-0664-8
This is a first novel by the author of Sea Change, an account of his solo voyage across the Atlantic, and here, too, Nichols writes of the sea and ships with great feeling and accuracy. With his lean but telling style, he is as convincing on seafaring, navigation and weather as Hemingway is on big game hunting or bullfighting. His protagonist is Will Boden, a skilled seaman down on his luck in depression-era New York. In a moment of ill judgment, he once abandoned the ship he was captaining, and is now reduced to scraping a living, literally, on the waterfront. Along comes Carl Schenck, a wealthy industrialist who wants to ape his idol, Teddy Roosevelt, as a big game hunter, but fears it's all been done. He hits upon the notion to take the beautiful luxury yacht he has just acquired up into the Arctic to hunt for seal, bear, whatever he can find, and among the motley crew he assembles, including a skipper who is a fake British naval officer, is poor Will. Thus begins an adventure yarn alternately scary and hilarious, as Schenck takes ludicrous risks, the weather closes in and the ill-starred expedition begins to fall apart. Nichols shows an amazingly practiced hand for a fledgling novelist as he moves his large and vividly sketched cast through an ever more threatening series of disasters. The crowning event, brought on by Schenck himself, does stretch credulity, but otherwise the narrative tension is tight as a wire hawser, and Nichols's eye for the natural beauty and terrors of the icy North unerring. Only a rather perfunctory windup, which snatches dire defeat from the jaws of seeming victory, disappoints slightly. Still, this is an utterly gripping read, a tale that says a great deal about the mystique of men and the sea even as it entertains. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 10/04/1999
Release date: 10/01/1999
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