A salty tale, along the Joseph Conrad lines. No. It isn’t. I lied. It is less about the sea and sailing than it is about the people who sail upon the briney. Well, maybe that is also true about Conrad’s work.
Jake Thomas is now a retired merchant mariner. He writes fiction, mostly sea tales, but his story is all about when he was a 19-year-old cadet on his first voyage. It was 1969, the Vietnam war was still raging, and the old freighter he was on was ferrying supplies around the Pacific Rim. During a month-long stop at Subic Bay in the Philippines for repairs and loading, he is encouraged to go off to the debauchery and corruption of the area’s red light district in the jungle, where he indulges in sex, drugs and maybe even rock n roll. He contracts some illness, perhaps mosquito-borne, and the prostitutes with whom he is living fear they cannot save him, so call on the wife of a nearby missionary who has nursing skills. She comes to take care of him, and it’s Elmer Gantry meets Graham Greene. She is a sexually frustrated, feisty gal and even though there are twenty years separating their ages, they have a fine old time.
Turns out that the missionary and his family are to be traveling back to California on the same freighter, much to the delight of the now-well young man, who foresees several weeks of hanky, not to mention panky, on the agenda. However, those dreams are thwarted by the aggressive and peculiar first mate. VERY peculiar.
The night before arriving at the San Francisco port, the woman is found dead.
As the book opens, her now grown children come to Jake to ask what he knows about what really happened on that fateful voyage. The kids were only 12 and 8 at the time. They only know what they were told. They ask him to write a narrative about it, and will pay him a large sum to do so. And thus ensues a tale of moral depravity, youth, corruption, and includes a ship captain whose loyalty to duty and his ship is heartwarming, in an Apocalypse Now kind of way.
It is an examination of human frailty, loss, and the excoriation of government policies and actions. Yeah. All of that.
A really great book. It has everything…. stupidity, human nature, love, hate, and large scary animals. What’s not to like?