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Books: Jay Parini's 'The Passages of H.M.,' reviewed by Ron Charles

By Ron Charles
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 11:28 PM

THE PASSAGES OF H.M.

By Jay Parini

Doubleday

450 pp. $26.95

The Irish hold up "Ulysses," the Russians cherish "War and Peace," and we point to "Moby-Dick" - those national monuments we revere but seldom visit. Face it: Herman Melville, the man who wrote the most famous opening line in American literature, is now largely unread. Call me crazy, but that's a damnable fate, the literary equivalent of being lost at sea.

Luckily, I had a high school English teacher who sailed us through the pages of "Moby-Dick" with the unwavering determination of Captain Ahab. But in college and graduate school - focused on American literature! - we only pursued a few of Melville's shorter works, dark marvels like "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and "Billy Budd."

Size matters, but length isn't the only challenge posed by "Moby-Dick." It's a vortex that sucks up chunks of classical history and literature, theology and geography, nautical science and 19th-century industry. Melville's style is thick and demanding, too, even by the standards of his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. Yes, it's a rip-roaring seafaring adventure, but it sails through rough waters of philosophy, and there's no escaping the howling wind of Melville's anguished mind.

But I feel a little closer to the surprising warmth of that mind after reading Jay Parini's new biographical novel, "The Passages of H.M." There are certainly fuller treatments of the author's life, starting with Hershel Parker's definitive biography - 2,000 pages in two volumes, completed in 2005 - but that's another leviathan more praised than read. Although Parini's story tacks close to the outline of Melville's experience, much has been artfully omitted, and what remains benefits from the novelist's ability to shape the story of a lonely man, a volcanic husband and an obsessed writer.

Parini has written such faction before. A longtime English professor at Middlebury College and a prolific literary critic, he's produced traditional biographies of John Steinbeck, Robert Frost and William Faulkner, but 20 years ago he wrote a novel about Tolstoy, "The Last Station," which was the basis for the recent film starring Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren. I'm tempted to feel there's something vaguely cowardly about the biographical novel as a form, as though it's merely a preemptive defense against writing a dull novel (Remember, it's a biography) or an inaccurate biography (Please, it's a novel). And yet these hybrid books, with their crafted themes and dramatic arcs that no messy real life could follow, have given me an intimate sense of such figures as Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson and Emily Dickinson.

That's certainly the case with "The Passages of H.M." In fact, Parini is more effective with the interior life of his hero than with the great author's famous adventures. He starts in 1839 when Melville is a restless 19-year-old, dreaming of serving on a whaler. We travel with him on his first voyage, a four-month round trip to Liverpool (total wage: $12), and then on to his next trip in 1841 to the South Seas in search of sperm whales. It was during that tumultuous voyage that Melville and a buddy deserted at Nuku Hiva. Melville went on to Tahiti and Hawaii and then returned home almost four years later with those tales of paradise, cannibals and sexual exploits that he published in "Typee" and "Omoo."

Parini is careful to highlight the biographical bases for Melville's stories, and the better you know his oeuvre, the more allusions you're likely to catch, as when a sick crewman refuses to work, "saying quite simply to his superiors, 'I prefer not to.' " And no one will miss young Melville's interest in the story of "Mocha Dick, a huge bull whale, white as a sail, who had smashed several ships in the course of an infamous life."

But despite the dramatic potential of this material, there's a disappointing amount of shorthand storytelling here. Perhaps it's prudery, or maybe Parini doesn't want to compete with the great novelist's own descriptions of his experiences among the Polynesians, but his recreations seem muted and pale at the very moments that they should be most libidinous and terrifying. When a flotilla of South Sea nymphs meets the ship of horny sailors in the bay, for instance, what happened next "defied easy description." Well sure, it's hard, but give it a try, Mr. Parini, because by the time we get to Polynesia, those nymphs will be long gone! Later, the author says that an old sailor named Toothless Tom "reveled in tales that made the blood curdle. . . . You could not invent such things." But a little more invention would help here.

Besides, Parini is thoroughly capable of such creativity, as other sections of the novel show to great effect. He confesses in a short afterward, for example, that he practically made up Melville's long-suffering wife from scratch. Lizzie narrates every other chapter, sometimes in sync with Parini's retelling of Melville's life and sometimes jumping ahead. She's a marvelous creation, a smoldering prisoner of bitterness and devotion, resentment and affection. Her traditional faith makes an awkward marriage with her husband's febrile search for God, swinging between an Old Testament Yahweh and Ralph Waldo Emerson's misty pantheism. Enduring Melville's moods and punches, she gives a sobering portrait of life with the depressed genius who started his career with his most popular books and then watched his reputation sink.

Parini is especially sensitive in his portrayal of the desperate loneliness that afflicted the writer throughout his life. On sea and land, Melville was prone to intense emotional devotion to men who were too reserved, too frightened or simply too uninterested to return his craving for intimacy. The lengthy section about Melville's sometimes embarrassing affection for Nathaniel Hawthorne makes the latter part of the novel particularly rewarding. And what's so impressive is that Parini manages to create Melville's homoerotic yearning and despair in the context of 19th-century attitudes about sexuality, a pre-Freudian age that had not neatly divided the world into gay and straight, but also had no words for the feelings of love between men that Walt Whitman was so bravely yawping about. Wounded by Hawthorne's impenetrable restraint, Melville gropes for some way to express his feelings in a language that offers only romance or deviancy: "We lack the appropriate terms," he says. "But I say what I feel. Love is the only word that will suffice."

The finer elements of this novel are sometimes submerged beneath its more ordinary sections, but "The Passages of H.M." remains a sensitive introduction to Melville's stormy life and imagination. Anyone setting off into the great writer's novels, or returning to them after years away, might enjoy this thoughtful re-imagining of the man who remains America's Milton.

charlesr@washpost.com

Charles is the fiction critic of Book World. For a short video version of this review, go to www.wapo.st/totally-hip.

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