WAKE OF THE PERDIDO STAR
By Gene Hackman and Daniel Lenihan
Newmarket. 384 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Ken Ringle
Those of us with a weakness for good historical novels, particularly of a maritime bent, must live with a stern and terrifying reality: It takes a lot of sifting to find a good book in that category, and the bad ones are really, really bad.
This is a bad one.
It should be a giveaway that it was born of more than one author. Who can recall a decent comittee-written novel since Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall's splendid Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy in the 1930s? Gene Hackman is a talented movie actor, and we can only wish him continued joy in that profession. Daniel Lenihan, we are informed by the book jacket, is "one of the world's leading underwater archaeologists." This may well be true. Neither he nor Hackman, however, displays even rudimentary knowledge of either the age or the sort of sailing voyage their book purports to describe. Anachronisms and nautical howlers bombard the reader like spindrift in a Force 10 gale.
When young Jack O'Reilly, son of Ethan the gunsmith, sets sail from Salem in 1805 with his family to reclaim his Cuban-born mother's estate outside Havana, the 112-foot brigantine Perdido Star steers by compass numbers (instead of compass points) a century before the evolution of the compass made that possible. Its speed is reckoned not in knots but in "knots an hour." When the rudder begins binding, the captain puts ashore to repair it, choosing as refuge one area any real 19th-century mariner would veer far to avoid: the notorious ship-killing shoals of Cape Hatteras.
In real life, of course, a brigantine's crew would have either fixed or jury-rigged a rudder at sea (far more difficult repairs were routinely made afloat) or simply steered the ship with her sails. A flawless rudder would have been essential mainly when maneuvering in tight quarters like the treacherous inlets of the North Carolina Outer Banks -- the very place our authors have their crippled ship seek out.
This sort of nonsense is the real wake of the Perdido Star, and only the nautically obsessed would care if Hackman and Lenihan were serving up the meat of historical fiction: the sights, sounds and language unique to a bygone era, and the ever-fascinating arcana of daily life in another age. Alas, this is not to be. The early 19th-century dialogue sounds like something overheard on "Monday Night Football," generously salted with such self-consciously "antique" exclamations as "Great bollocks of the papist prince!" The text stretches on and away, as dry and lifeless as an endless doldrums passage in a wormy, hermaphrodite brig.
The Perdido Star eventually reaches Cuba, where young Jack's parents are murdered by the requisite villainous Spanish don. Jack escapes back to the ship, which heads for Cape Horn, sailing south "until the Antarctic coast lay just 20 miles away." In real life Antarctica wasn't discovered for another 30 years, but never mind.
In the South Pacific, the Perdido Star is shipwrecked, apparently to permit Lenihan to display his diving knowledge, and indeed the most interesting passages in the book are those where the crew invents a diving bell to salvage things from the sunken vessel. In the course of this they discover such underwater hazards as pulmonary embolism, nitrogen narcosis and "the bends," all of which are unveiled with a sort of 20th-century elbow in the reader's ribs to make sure we notice.
Then we have an alliance with some noble savages, a battle with some piratical Dutchmen, and the construction of a new ship, Etoile Trouve (get it?), from the salvaged old one and the Dutchman's wreckage. This is then sailed to the Philippines, despite the apparent earlier loss of all navigation equipment. In the Philippines the ship is completely rebuilt and re-equipped, though how the shipwrecked crew can pay for this is never explained. Apparently they seized some silver from the Dutch ship. How did they do that, since the Dutch ship exploded first? Oh, never mind.
The press kit accompanying Wake of the Perdido Star informs us that Gene Hackman has "always had a yearning to write." This yearning should have been resisted. What he and his Santa Fe neighbor Lenihan have committed here is something on the order of celebrity fiction -- a horrifying genre that should be put to death right now. Anyone publishing it should be shanghaied aboard a hell-ship and flogged through the horse latitudes.
Ken Ringle is a writer and critic for The Post's Style section.