We gave it a B
Pity poor Owen Browne, a doomed seaman if ever there was one. No one in a Robert Stone novel is going to race a sailboat around the world and return a happy victor. As with the heroes of his previous novels (A Hall of Mirrors, Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise, and Children of Light), Stone’s protagonist in Outerbridge Reach is a man on the edge of despair. But unlike his predecessors-burned-out substance abusers for the most part — Owen Browne is a straight arrow. A salesman for Altan yachts by day, he spends his nights reading Melville and brooding about how his life has come to nothing since graduating from the Naval Academy and serving as an adviser in Vietnam. ”The navy of the Republic of Vietnam never produced many naval heroes,” he admits ruefully. ”It did produce a number of amusing anecdotes.”
Anyhow, before you can say ”Moby Dick,” the millionaire playboy who runs the bankrupt conglomerate that owns Browne’s yacht company vanishes on the eve of a solo race around the world. With a documentary filmmaker already contracted to immortalize the race, a replacement must be found to sail an Altan boat to glory. What better candidate than a handsome salesman who looks and acts the part?
Seeing a chance to ease his existential dread, Browne agrees. ”On the other side of darkness, he imagined freedom,” Stone tells us with characteristic solemnity. ”It was a bright expanse, an effort, a victory. It was a good fight or the right war — something that eased the burden of self and made breath possible. Without it, he felt as though he had been preparing all his life for something he would never live to see.”
Problem is, the man has sailed the open ocean alone just once before, and very nearly succumbed to panic. His wife, Anne, by far the book’s most sympathetic figure, fears the worst but hesitates to interfere. ”If I ask him not to go,” she thinks, ”it will be with us the rest of our lives. He will regret it forever…Their lives would be like everyone else’s and it would always be her fault.” Others have even more basic doubts. ”The sea selects,” says an odious yacht-club snob who delights in saying so. ”God bless her. Hype doesn’t float.”
Unfortunately many readers will also have doubts about a narrative that’s less a sailing race than an extended literary conceit. For all his wit and stylistic brilliance, Stone seems so intent upon the meaning of his tale that he can’t be bothered supplying the kinds of essential details we’d expect from ESPN. Who’s sponsoring the race? What are the stakes? How long will it take to circumnavigate the globe? What route will the mariners follow? Instead, the hero sails off into a sea of metaphors out of Melville and Poe, while the artist — in the person of the aforementioned documentary filmmaker — gets the girl. B