Friday, February 5, 2010

Best Novel of the Sea

Moby Dick? The O'Brien series, which ought rightly be considered one huge novel? Swallows and Amazons? No. The first is wonderful but .  . . dated. The second is too fresh. The third is for kids, and is probably the best sea story for children.

My money is on C.S. Forester's The Good Shepard. Forester wrote not only the Hornblower books but also the wonderful The African Queen. The Good Shepard is his most nuanced book, beautifully told but with a degree of character development unmatched in his other works.

The protagonist is George Krause, the year 1942, the setting the winter North Atlantic. Captain George Krause U.S.N.,  is a midwesterner, career Navy, a devout Christian whose wife has left him. He has never seen action, yet by dint of seniority he commands the escort for a thirty-two ship convoy of merchant ships bound for England. He is captain of the destroyer Keeling, and under him are three or four British and Polish destroyers and corvettes whose skippers have seen three years of bitter war and who are understandably skeptical of the skills of the untested and much older Yank. A Nazi wolfpack descends, and over about forty-eight hours the battle rages, with only Krause's wits, intuition, training and guesswork between the submarines and the convoy's destruction. If you have read the Hornblower novels, you will be familiar with Krause's deep suspicion of his own skill, his loathing of any sense of self-pride or even self-satisfaction. The action is superb and unrelenting, told in real time. Read this book in a day or two, if you can, at the same pace as the action.

Here's an excerpt. Keeling and another destroyer have attacked a submarine and it has surfaced with damage, but hugs Dodge to prevent Keeling from getting a clear shot:

Keeling's turn to starboard presented her whole port side to Dodge and the sub. All five five-inch guns came training around as she turned, and at the same instant the sub with her wheel hard over and taken momentarily by surprise by Dodge's abrupt alteration of rudder diverged from her. Ten yards - twenty yards- fifty yards of clear water divided the two ships, and before the U-boat could turn back into the sheltering embrace of her enemy the five-inch opened, like a peel of thunder in the next room, shaking Keeling's hull as a fit of coughing will shake a man's body. The sea seemed suddenly to pile up around the gray U-boat, the splashes were so close and so continuous around her; with the square gray bridge only dimly to be seen in the heart of it like an object in a glass paperweight - and, in the heart of it too, over and over again, a momentary orange glare as a shell burst. Also in the heart of it showed momentarily a vivid red disk, just once. Through the noise of the gunfire and the vibration of the recoil Krause heard a rending crash and felt Keeling undergo a violent shock which made everyone on the bridge stagger; a shock wave like a sudden breath passed into and out of the pilothouse.

The last paragraph is just action, and the book is marked by its examination of the extraordinary Krause, as portrayed in desperate battle. It is a remarkable novel of the sea.

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