cover image Exiles


Philip Caputo. Vintage Books USA, $17 (368pp) ISBN 978-0-679-76838-8

Despite an absorbing premise, multiple adventures at sea and ashore, and a succession of colorful characters, this account by Pulitzer Prize-winner Caputo (Rumors of War) of a nautical voyage from Maine to the tropics, and from innocence to disillusionment, lingers in the doldrums before acquiring the tragic velocity of its denouement. In 1901, in an apparently quixotic character-building exercise, ""grim and intransigent"" Boston Brahmin Cyrus Braithwaite banishes his three adolescent sons (16-year-old daredevil Nathaniel, sharp-tongued Eliot, 15, and rational but timid Andrew, 12) to sea for the summer in the family schooner, the Double Eagle--with food supplies, $30 and orders not to show their faces until September. When an old salt advises them, ""Keep yer hawsers free fer runnin', yer eyes on the weathah, an' remember that any idjit kin crack it on but the wise man knaowsta shorten sail on time,"" however, it's obvious that their plan to try to emulate their father's early career as a wrecker will bring them all the disaster the sea can deliver. Storms, fog, sharks and alligators, encounters with unscrupulous people from every social strata and other misadventures all build toward the inevitable, presaged hurricane, two tragic deaths and the wreck of the Double Eagle. Once the long-awaited hurricane finally hits, off the coast of Cuba, Caputo generates real excitement and suspense as the romantic salvage venture concocted by the three boys and their Yale sidekick and crew member becomes a life-or-death test of character. But the chapters on the trip from Maine to the Florida Keys are thickly coated with local and historical color, including dialect-heavy oystermen and sponge-harvesters. The gothic subplot of Cyrus's motives and the Braithwaite family's secrets, played out against the Civil War's aftermath and the Spanish-American War, adds ballast on a vessel already laden with a heavy cargo of Original Sin, inherited character flaws, parents who destroy their children and the decline of America's ""barons of mercantile aristocracy,"" whose guilty secrets haunt them down the generations. The concatenation of all these elements may daunt some readers; others will appreciate Captuo's meticulous research and his Conradian vision of America's past. 40,000 first printing; BOMC alternate. (Nov.)