Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Do I even need to discuss the plot behind Moby-Dick by Herman Melville? Is there anyone who doesn’t know about Ishmael’s observing Captain Ahab’s overwhelming obsession to bring down the white whale? Does anyone (both the large number who haven’t read it but still know it and the somewhat fewer who actually have read it) not recognize the opening line: “Call me Ishmael?” I really feel this is one book that really doesn’t need a whole lot of discussion.

But, let’s talk about whaling a bit:

In connection with this appellative of “Whalebone whales,” it is of great importance to mention, that however such a nomenclature may be convenient in facilitating allusions to some kind of whales, yet it is in vain to attempt a clear classification of the Leviathan, founded upon either his baleen, or hump, or fin, or teeth; notwithstanding that those marked parts or features very obviously seem better adapted to afford the basis for a regular system of Cetology than any other detached bodily distinctions, which the whale, in his kinds, presents. How then? The baleen, hump, back-fin, and teeth; these are things whose peculiarities are indiscriminately dispersed among all sorts of whales, without any regard to what may be the nature of their structure in other and more essential particulars. Thus, the sperm whale and the humpbacked whale, each has a hump; but there the similitude ceases. Then, this same humpbacked whale and the Greenland whale, each of these has baleen; but there again the similitude ceases. And it is just the same with the other parts above mentioned. In various sorts of whales, they form such irregular combinations; or, in the case of any one of them detached, such an irregular isolation; as utterly to defy all general methodization formed upon such a basis. On this rock every one of the whale-naturalists has split.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for 3rd for Paul Auster, 2nd for Russell Banks, 5th for John Banville, 8th for Andrea Barrett, 7th for Bebe Moore Campbell, 4th for Michael Chabon, 4th for David Anthony Durham, 4th for Jim Harrison, 8th for Adam Haslett, 3rd for John Irving, 7th for Norman Mailer, 9th for Bobbie Ann Mason, 1st for Patrick McGrath, 9th for Joyce Carol Oates, favorite at age 25 for Richard Powers, 7th for Francine Prose, 10th for Ian Rankin, and 9th for Louis D. Rubin Jr.)

Vivid portrayal of the slipperiness of good and evil, depiction of all consuming vengeance, the arrogance of man, the indifferent power of nature, a detailed portrait of whaling, there are so many functions going on in Moby-Dick. Everyone seems to know of it. Of those who have actually read it, the camps are fiercely divided. Some adore it, some hate it, and some hate it so much that they despise that others adore it and insist it shouldn’t be considered a classic.

But, let’s take a minute to talk about whaling:

In one of those southern whalesmen, on a long three or four years’ voyage, as often happens, the sum of the various hours you spend at the mast-head would amount to several entire months. And it is much to be deplored that the place to which you devote so considerable a portion of the whole term of your natural life, should be so sadly destitute of anything approaching to a cosy inhabitiveness, or adapted to breed a comfortable localness of feeling, such as pertains to a bed, a hammock, a hearse, a sentry box, a pulpit, a coach, or any other of those small and snug contrivances in which men temporarily isolate themselves. Your most usual point of perch is the head of the t’ gallant-mast, where you stand upon two thin parallel sticks (almost peculiar to whalemen) called the t’ gallant cross-trees. Here, tossed about by the sea, the beginner feels about as cosy as he would standing on a bull’s horns. To be sure, in cold weather you may carry your house aloft with you, in the shape of a watch-coat; but properly speaking the thickest watch-coat is no more of a house than the unclad body; for as the soul is glued inside of its fleshy tabernacle, and cannot freely move about in it, nor even move out of it, without running great risk of perishing (like an ignorant pilgrim crossing the snowy Alps in winter); so a watch-coat is not so much of a house as it is a mere envelope, or additional skin encasing you. You cannot put a shelf or chest of drawers in your body, and no more can you make a convenient closet of your watch-coat.

Personally, I do look up to Moby-Dick quite a bit. The action parts are layered and gripping. I see all kinds of things in them and am on the edge of my seat. The whaling parts do make the book a real slog to get through, but I see functions those perform as well. The picture it gives of that way of live, the long time building up just to tear down in a single moment, I can see it…though I can also understand why so many get so angry about this book.

But, let’s talk about whaling just a bit more:

I know of only four published outlines of the great Sperm Whale; Colnett’s, Huggins’s, Frederick Cuvier’s, and Beale’s. In the previous chapter Colnett and Cuvier have been referred to. Huggins’s is far better than theirs; but, by great odds, Beale’s is the best. All Beale’s drawings of this whale are good, excepting the middle figure in the picture of three whales in various attitudes, capping his second chapter. His frontispiece, boats attacking Sperm Whales, though no doubt calculated to excite the civil scepticism of some parlor men, is admirably correct and life-like in its general effect. Some of the Sperm Whale drawings in J. Ross Browne are pretty correct in contour; but they are wretchedly engraved. That is not his fault though.

I mean, Melville does take a while to get around to things. He has a marvelous story and wonderfully developed characters, but it is a long walk to get there. Everything is so meticulously laid out. Still, I think there is something in that. He spends so long making everything so concretely there, then he smashes it all in one quick second. Personally, I’m still a fan and I still respect the hell out of Moby-Dick.

Note: before this went live, I came across a Simpsons’ quote I just had to pointlessly add:

Homer: What kind of example would I be if I didn’t take revenge on things?
Lisa: Dad, you can’t take revenge on animals. That’s the whole point of Moby Dick.
Homer: Lisa, the point of Moby Dick is, “Be yourself.”

Fuzz by Ed McBain

This week I took on Fuzz by Ed McBain. Hold on, I have to get something out of my system…

McBain as an author has apparently little to do with The Simpsons character, though. Fuzz doesn’t center on a single Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger character. It’s a number of characters in the 87th precinct. It’s a thrilling crime drama, but not quite the Bruce Willis/Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie kind of a thing.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for…David Foster Wallace?! Yeah, apparently so.)

The 87th precinct is in a mess. A cunning criminal known as ‘The Deaf Man’ is making extortion demands, and killing city officials when the demands aren’t met. He kills the parks commissioner. He kills the deputy mayor. Fuzz has plenty of stark crime drama type action:

That night, as Parks Commissioner Cowper came down the broad white marble steps outside Philharmonic Hall, his wife clinging to his left arm, swathed in mink and wearing a diaphanous white scarf on her head, the commissioner himself resplendent in black tie and dinner jacket, the mayor and his wife four steps ahead, the sky virtually starless, a bitter brittle dryness to the air, that night as the parks commissioner came down the steps of Philharmonic Hall with the huge two-story-high windows behind him casting warm yellow light onto the windswept steps and pavement, that night as the commissioner lifted his left foot preparatory to placing it on the step below, laughing at something his wife said in his ear, his laughter billowing out of his mouth in puffs of visible vapor that whipped away on the wind like comic strip balloons, that night as he tugged on his right-hand glove with his already gloved left hand, that night two shots cracked into the plaza, shattering the wintry stillness, and the commissioner’s laugh stopped, the commissioner’s hand stopped, the commissioner’s foot stopped, and he tumbled headlong down the steps, blood pouring from his forehead and his check, and his wife screamed, and the mayor turned to see what was the matter, and an enterprising photographer on the sidewalk caught the toppling commissioner on film for posterity.

He was dead long before his body rolled to a stop on the wide white bottom step.

However, oddly enough, there is a slapstick humor element regularly mixed in with all the cop drama and crime aspects:

The painters were in a garrulous mood.

“What have you got going, a stakeout?” the first painter asked.

“Is that what the walkie-talkie’s for?” the second painter asked.

“Is there gonna be a bank holdup?”

“Is that why you’re listening to that thing?”

“Shut up,” Kling said encouragingly.

The painters were on their ladders, slopping apple green paint over everything in sight.

“We painted the D.A.’s office once,” the first painter said.

“They were questioning this kid who stabbed his mother forty-seven times.”

“Forty-seven times.”

“In the belly, the head, the breasts, everyplace.”

“With an icepick.”

“He was guilty as sin.”

“He said he did it to save her from the Martians.”

“A regular bedbug.”

“Forty-seven times.”

“How could that save her from the Martians?” the second painter said.

“Maybe Martians don’t like ladies with icepick holes in them,” the first painter said, and burst out laughing.

The drama was gripping and well written, and I did get a guffaw out of the humor. I did find some weird repetitions in Fuzz that grated a little bit. Here are a few: 1. The city is a bitch. 2. It’s cold. 3. People don’t like working on Saturdays. These didn’t break up the book too much, but they were kind of weird things to harp on.

Fuzz was my first McBain and I have to say I had a lot of fun. I was expecting a fast paced and stark crime drama, and it was and did all that well, but I wasn’t expecting the intermixing of the slapstick humor. Fuzz is gripping and vivid, action-oriented and all that, but it’s also quite funny in parts. That made it a lot more for me than a simple crime drama. I enjoyed myself much more than I thought I was going to.