cover image The Ordinary Seaman

The Ordinary Seaman

Francisco Goldman. Atlantic Monthly Press, $23 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-87113-671-8

A voyage of the damned, albeit on a ship that never sails, is the framing concept of this powerful narrative. Fifteen desperate men lured from Central America by the promise of work aboard a freighter find themselves trapped on a rusting, rat- and roach-infested hulk without plumbing, heat or electricity, abandoned at an isolated Brooklyn pier. Placated by the promise that they will eventually be paid, the crew work for six months under horrifying conditions: half starved, filthy, sick and humiliated, they're victims of their own poverty and the chicanery of others. Goldman shapes his story through the tales--often ribald and laced with Spanish vernacular--the characters tell to make their ordeal bearable. He focuses on Esteban Gaitan, at 19 already a haunted shadow, tortured by flashbacks to his experiences as a Sandinista guerrilla and by the death in combat of his young lover. Initially, the rambling tales and discursions impede the narrative's forward movement, but gradually, the stories accumulate and resolve into a searing picture of human vulnerability and courage. When Esteban surreptitiously leaves the ship and prowls the ethnic neighborhoods of Brooklyn in search of food and succor, the story opens out and presents a fascinating picture of a corner of America as seen through unsophisticated eyes. While this is surely a saga of betrayal and exploitation, Goldman maintains a note of cautious optimism about the resourcefulness of men pushed to the brink of despair, and about the determined search for both love and new life in a difficult new land. Goldman won the Sue Kaufman Prize for first fiction for The Long Night of White Chickens. This novel, inspired by an actual incident, should establish him securely on the literary map. Author tour. (Feb.)