THE LAST VOYAGE OF
SOMEBODY THE SAILOR
By John Barth
Little, Brown. 573 pp. $22.95
JOHN BARTH'S characteristically immense, elaborate and high-spirited new novel is that rare and wondrous thing, a serene, joyous, many-faceted contemplation of death. North Americans tend to be a little squeamish about the necessary inevitability of their own departure from this mortal sphere; other cultures are less so. European fairy tales may end with the hero and heroine living "happily ever after." The stories in Barth's beloved Arabian Nights don't hold with such wishful thinking.
There is only one destination to all our voyages, only one end to every story. Barth makes Haroun-al-Raschid, in his imaginary Baghdad, bless a pair of ecstatic lovers with the Arab fairy-tale wedding formula: They are wished "white nights and golden days until the Destroyer of Delights and Desolater of Dwelling Places collected from us the debt all creatures owe their maker."
And, take it all in all, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor -- like such earlier Barth works as The Sot-Weed Factor and Chimera -- is filled with white nights and golden days, a busy, bustling, wholly invented and self-sufficient world posing as a novel, with something in it for everybody -- songs, pirates, lovely girls, rude jokes, belly dancing, cannibals, nostalgic glimpses of the '60s, satire, parody and much more.
Barth's hero and narrator is a fiftyish "new journalist," less famous now than he was when the phrase "new journalism" was first coined. At various times in his life he's been known as Simon William Behler, Baylor, Bey-el-Loor, B-Bibi-Bill, "Simmon, Simon, Somebody," given names, pen names, mispronunciations, love names. Sometimes a girlfriend might call him "Bill Bailey."
He's a genial man and, for a writer, modest. He was born and raised in the tidewater country of Maryland, and his life has described the exemplary arc of the American century -- from small-town middle-class to metropolitan professional. In mid-life, after finally finding true love, he suffers a curious misfortune. After a sailing accident, in which he drowns, he finds he has been "reborn, full-grown and middle-aged, between two random pages of The Thousand and One Nights."
Literally so. He finds himself a guest in the house of the ultimate voyager, Sindbad, and also the lover of Sinbad's beautiful daughter, Yasmin, whose problematic virginity forms the principal motor of a plot as mechanically complex and decorative as a clockwork toy.
This is the baldest possible outline of a work of fiction that initially moves between Orientalist fantasy and a lovingly done naturalism. Barth's evocation of an American boyhood during the Second World War -- eccentric neighbours, frail mother, messing about the river, sexual experimentation -- is lyrical, fresh and sprightly, but it is also familiar country to any reader of American fiction. It is as much a literary convention in its own way as is Sindbad's baroque accounts of exotic landfalls.
Indeed, when Simon William Behler, or Baylor (whom we shall now call Somebody, henceforward) tells his stories of soda-fountains and bicycles to an audience of turbanned, caftanned, medieval Arabs, they find them inherently implausible. "The high ground of traditional realism . . . is where I stand!" proclaims one critic. "Give me familiar, substantial stuff; rocs and rhinoceri, ifrits, and genies." This is certainly what they get from Sindbad's remorseless storytelling.
Soon the "real" world of the American century (before the war in the Persian Gulf) and the imaginary one of Old Baghdad fuse. Somebody tells the story of his own drowning and after that is forced to live permanently in Sindbad's world, even if he has managed to take his prized wristwatch with him and cannot quite relinquish the notion that somewhere round the corner lurks the U.S. Embassy.
The contrapuntal voices of Somebody and Sindbad provide the central matrix of the story but other storytellers constantly butt in. Yasmin's ancient duenna, Jayda, for instance, whose subjectivity is so great she can conceive of Somebody and Yasmin only as incidental characters in "Allah's great tale of Jayda the Cairene." Aren't we all the heroes of our own lives? Stories run into and out of one another in a pattern as complex as that of a Persian carpet, providing clues to mysteries solved in later stories, or -- a fiendish touch -- that have already been solved in earlier stories.
The tumbling narrative reflects and illuminates Somebody's late 20th-century life. It is not a period romance, more a gigantic metaphor. Themes surface like rocks at low tide: the relationship between fathers and daughters, and that of the great trinity of loss, time and memory . . . And the sea itself, which is also, as in the title of the great Sanskrit collection of tales, the Ocean of Story. We leave our storyteller at last shipwrecked in the terminal ward, about to embark on one last journey, delighted by the unexpected arrival of a traveling companion who has been waiting for this moment all his life.
Some of the Arabian Nights pastiche gets tiresome. "Wahat" and "zabb" for the female and male organs, for example, again and again and again. And there is an occasional, not un-irritating, sub-Borgesian tricksiness -- Yasmin, "in a sea green djellaba that matched exactly her matchless eyes," takes paradox past the point of no return. But, among so much that is sad, funny, kind, generous and surprising, why quibble. The reader must echo Somebody's toast: "To men and women alike, who behave to one another as fellow human beings, for we are all stranded together upon this great and monstrous island called the World." John Barth's novel is an oddly noble achievement, wonderfully unafraid and cheerful.
Angela Carter's books include the novel "Nights at the Circus" and the story collection "Saints and Strangers." She recently edited "The Old Wives' Fairy Tale Book."