Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Why Kerouac Matters," by John Leland




"Moby-Dick"is such a tough climb that you can miss a lot of the scenery on the way up.

Like Mount Everest, with "Moby Dick" there's no denying the presence of greatness, but wrapping yourself around it is another question.

It is a symptom of how low the reading public has fallen in highwayscribery's estimation that the famed novel's solid reputation comes as something of a surprise.

Are people still reading this book?

Herman Melville's prose is dense and rich and hard work to absorb. That said, it would not be going out on a limb, given the classic's status, to say the effort is worth the while.

Hung from the author's whale tale are many meditations on the human (and animal!) condition and his prolific output and textured life inform them beautifully.

"Moby Dick" has so much to give, but one must wonder whether Melville could even find a publisher in today's environment.

Last year, this scribe entered his latest effort, "The Sidewalk Smokers Club," into the "Writer's Digest" book contest. That particular competition and publication seem rooted in the academic wing of today's American literary universe, their contents and judgments fueled by so many masters and mistresses of fine arts.

In any case, the book "scored" well without passing to the next round. The judge had problems with the "loss of momentum" that took place when the highway scribe's alter ego, Stephen Siciliano, intermittently and briefly, digressed from his yarn and extrapolated certain going's-on in the story to the larger universe surrounding.

That judge never read "Moby Dick."

In the epic, Melville's actual "story" might be told using one-fifth the pages he actually presses from his fevered mind: The narrator gets on a whaling boat for cash and adventure, but is unwittingly enlisted in Captain Ahab's mad quest to end the life of Moby Dick and avenge the white beast's severing of his leg.

Along the way, however, the reader is treated to voluminous information about the cetaceous species, "Cetaceous," being an expression the scribe did not know until attacking this tome.

Right whale, humpback whale, gray whale, and sperm whale - the particular star of "Moby Dick" -- all get their due. And not a perspective rendered from some distant boat deck mind you, but from the inside out, from mouth to blow-hole, to the tippy-tippy "fluke" (more cetaceous vocabulary).

And this is good, for books should inform us of things we thought we knew more about, especially in the case of the whale, which is Melville's point, as it is the largest living animal and a subject of remarkable strength, grace, and symbolism.

But such discourse, however edifying, does serve to break-up the narrative -- a lot.

And those who haven't worked much on a 19th Century commercial sailing vessel will find the preponderance of nautical terms daunting.

Spar, gunwhale, leeward, and aft, chocks, mizzen Donner and Blitzen, it's all rather hard to keep track of so that the uninitiated is tempted to "read through" the detailed renderings of seafaring equipment in an effort to get on with the story.

And that's a lot of skimming.

If our democracy grants everybody an opinion and permits an unknown writer to pass judgment upon a national treasure, highwayscribery would venture that "Moby Dick" is better in many of its parts than it is as a whole and integrated artistic work.

There...we said it.

Melville is muscular and poetic, scientific and rigorous, cultured and biblical in his writerly search for life's truths through the prism of an ocean adventure.

In highwayscribery's favorite passage, the monomaniacal Ahab talks with the severed head of a whale his crew hunted a day earlier:

"Speak, thou vast and venerable head," muttered Ahab, "which though ungarnished with beard, yet here and there look hoary with mosses, speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid the world's foundation. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou has been where bell or diver never went; has slept by many a sailor's side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou saw'st the locked lovers when leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sunk beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them..."

It is one of several stunning meditations on the sea's mysteries. Also a reminder of how much knowledge both above and below the sea's surface is beyond man's reach, and of the ever-present perils that dearth of information poses.

Melville's Pequod, boat and motley crew alike, are a dark vision, something out of Burning Man, a world-beat symphony 100 years before Bob Marley that accrues flavors as it traverses the earth's diverse quadrants, dark and desperate, aboriginal and Quaker, murderous and hungry and vulnerable, too.

Like many of the big books, Moby requires not so much a second reading as a scholarly commitment to its multi-layered method and madness, a love affair, a small piece of your life, for in crafting it, Melville clearly gave a piece of his own.

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