A Novel

By David Masiel

Random House. 290 pp. $24.95

The damned characters in David Masiel's new novel are sailing to hell in a cloud of toxic chemicals, and, at any moment, a stray spark could speed their progress. The Western Limit of the World takes place aboard a decrepit 600-foot tanker laden with thousands of barrels of fuel, caustic acids, chlorinated solvents and aromatic hydrocarbons. You don't need a degree in chemistry to know this ship is an ecological disaster waiting to happen or a degree in literature to know it's also a mighty symbol of Harold Snow, the 59-year-old moral wreck trying to survive one last voyage. Neither the ship nor Snow inspires much hope, but the story's pre-explosive tension makes it riveting.

Masiel, who worked as a merchant seaman for nearly a decade, is rapidly positioning himself as a writer of superb existential thrillers, a rough maritime version of Graham Greene or John le Carre. His 2002 debut, 2182 Kilohertz, charged into the Arctic on a last-ditch rescue effort to save a scientist trapped on an ice floe. This new novel is something of a rescue effort, too, but the stakes are more personal and the threats more diffusive and ominous. In fact, through much of the book we can't tell exactly what scheme Snow and his ragtag crew are pursuing, as though the toxic gasses seeping from their ship are obscuring the edges of the plot, which makes it all the more unnerving.

What's clear is that Snow and his ferociously violent partner, Bracelin, have somehow incapacitated their captain and plan to dispose of their multimillion-dollar cargo in some shady corner of the world's chemical market that won't require too much documentation or delay. From San Francisco to Panama to Sierra Leone, it turns out that disguising a 600-foot tanker is just about as difficult as you might expect, but the coast guards of the various nations that turn them away (or accept their bribes) are the least of Snow's worries. He needs to sell these chemicals before this old ship breaks up, "the mutinous ripples" on board gain momentum, or his psychotic partner kills them all. But even more pressing is Snow's hopeless affection for a female crew member half his age. He's gallantly offered to pretend they're lovers to protect her from sexual assault on board the ship, but the ruse only reminds him that they're not really sleeping together.

The story opens with the arrival of a new crewman, a troubled young seminary student named George Maciel, who's never been to sea in his life. George's grandfather and Snow were army buddies back in the day, and Snow takes an immediate interest in mentoring this self-righteous boy. But when George starts asking questions about the plans for their chemical cargo, things get uncomfortable. And when he starts sleeping with Snow's "girlfriend," even a 600-foot tanker seems downright cramped.

This high-seas adventure is a bracing plunge into cold salt water for anyone who thinks literary fiction has grown too precious and effete. It's a macho tale packed with enough grit and blood for the crustiest old sea dog. Masiel's characters move through increasingly violent locales, including a frightening episode in Liberia during the coup against President Tolbert that recalls Russell Banks's much fuller treatment of that disaster in The Darling (2004). The people aboard this ship accessorize with scars, dive into vats of toxic chemicals with blow torches and fight each other with giant wrenches. And they swear like . . . well, like sailors. But if all that testosterone propels the story forward, what gives it ballast is Snow's character. Haunted by sins that once drove him from the company of other men, he's now caught between his thirst for absolution and his fear that there is no god to offer it. "Time was," Snow says, "I just figured I'd go to hell," but now he's burdened with a sense of decency that may just get him killed. As the tanker limps from South America to Africa, searching for any place to dump its cargo, Masiel portrays Snow's desperation with profound sympathy.

"It was all such sickening business," Snow thinks amid the collapse of his body and his ship. But he can't shake his sense of responsibility for the young woman he loves, no matter how she's treated him. "He'd go to hell anyway, if there was a hell. Maybe in the end he could do something to save someone." That's a risky proposition for soul and body even if you're not trapped on a sinking tanker full of poisonous chemicals with a double-crossing, neck-snapping partner, but Masiel knows how to make Snow's calamitous journey sound moving and frighteningly believable. *

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.