"Behold the man," begins Ian McGuire's second novel, The North Water. Try not to read that as "Call me Ishmael" or as "See the child." For, in the first instance, like Moby Dick, it's a novel about a whaling ship and the parallels don't end there. And the second instance inaugurates Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, inspired in turn by Melville.
The novel's protagonist is a doctor named Sumner. A devotee of laudanum, Sumner uses the drug to process his service putting down the Indian Mutiny, when subcontinental sepoys rose up against their British masters. The crew of his ship is a crude bunch even by Melville's or McCarthy's standards, and recall the apocryphal description of British seamanship as consisting mainly of "rum, sodomy and the lash".
Indeed, sodomy becomes central to the novel, due to a devilish ingrate named Drax. While ashore he rapes and then murders a young black boy. Later aboard ship another young person is discovered defiled and it falls to Sumner to unearth the perpetrator. All this while McGuire describes in sanguine detail the butchery involved in the whaling trade, soon to be eclipsed by the trade in fossil fuels.
The novel's action proceeds in the Arctic, which becomes what the Congo was to Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The food runs out, and the crew must resort to Jack London-esque feats of survival amidst the frozen waste. Yet first contact is made with the easygoing Eskimaux, for whom this seeming emptiness is a paradise of leisure and bounty. Sumner's encounters with them recall another novel, William Vollmann's The Rifles.
And the novel resembles Vollmann in style, for while McGuire leavens his prose with earthy (or maritime) lingo, it is dense without depth, and his few attempts at waxing philosophical seem strained. He is best at dialogue and in his workmanlike descriptions of the gory labor entailed by the whaling endeavor.
Yet behold the man we do, and McGuire's novel is an unnerving reminder of the struggles of our civilization's past. Like Ishmael, Sumner is a memorable witness to the extremes humankind has approached for its survival.