There is a certain age when a boy wants to go to Nowhere for a while -- to step away from the pressures of school, childhood friends, home town and family and take a long, cool look at what is involved in becoming an adult male human being in contemporary society. It is the private rite of initiation, reinforcing inwardly what is symbolized externally by the confirmation or bar mitzvah, the driver's license, the diploma: the fact that a boy is becoming a man. But it is not only a symbol, it is an organic part of the process, a quiet time when the muscles are contracted for the leap into a new reality and the eye looks around for a direction in which to go.
For James Herndon, who later grew up to become a schoolteacher and to write "How to Survive in Your Native Land" and "The Way It Spozed to Be," that time came late in World War II, and the vehicle for his journey to Nowhere was a merchant ship, the S.S. "Malibu," mostly plying the Pacific and carrying fuel for American warships. His shipmates called him "One-Eye" in tribute to a disability that kept him out of the armed forces, and that was a satisfactory nickname. But in his own mind and in reality, he was The Explorer, venturing into unknown worlds of geography and of the soul, exploring himself and society and how they could interact.
He left a secure home and a school life where he had become a trumpeter with a dance band (easier for an unseasoned youth in those days, when most of the grown men were in uniform), and the easy, well-known rules of childhood and plunged into exotic landscapes from Mexico to Ceylon and up to what the crew calls "the wild Persian hills," and the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates. "Dis begins all civilization," explains a Dutch shipmate, "right here. They write language, they build temple, they kill like hell. Here starts flood, Noah's Ark . . . Here they invent beer. And here starts Garden of Eden too."
Presumably, this actually happened to Herndon, but the symbolic value of the return to the origins of civilization is what matters most in the book. The Explorer, through his whole journey, has been examining the end product of all that began in the Land Between the Rivers -- examining it in small, disjointed and specialized details that come up at random as circumstance dictates: how to deal with strange women in exotic places; the exact kind, size and location of a tattoo to establish and proclaim your place in this small society; the etiquette of poker and the proper conduct of a fight, which seems to be one of the main leisure activities on a merchant ship at sea. A return to the origins helps, somehow, to put it into perspective.
He learns how to measure himself against his companions and the hard, impersonal realities of the world. At one quietly crucial point, Herndon, who has exceptional abilities as a swimmer, is challenged by his shipmates with a $100 bet: Can he swim from the "Malibu" to another ship anchored a long way off? The actual swim is easy; what matters are his reflections on it as he churns through the Pacific: "It occurred to him that the bet was also crazy, from the other cats' point of view. What were they betting on? That he didn't make it? Them irrigation-ditch swimmers, old-swimmin-hole farmers, how would they collect?" This is not a grim thought; death, out there in the hospitable water, is still an unreality, until he touches the rusty old ship that is his goal and suddenly finds himself confronting reality: "He caught a glimpse of the huge rusty links of the anchor chain and was suddenly frightened out of his wits. He got the idea that he was out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He saw a huge metal ball, a mooring, floating twenty feet away, and the thick lines . . . going out to it. On the lines were metal shields to prevent rats from coming aboard. Rats? There could be rats in the . . . the ship's side was rusty and intimated bad things going on just below the water line . . . It scared him to death."
He has stepped briefly out of a protected reality, a self-contained microcosm, and touched something alien. He hastens back to the little, temporary world of the "Malibu" where he can continue to learn about reality in a context where, ultimately, nothing really counts.
At the end of the book and Herndon's journey, the war is over, he is beginning to think about a university and the other, more abstract kind of learning that he will need for later. The ship docks at Pearl Harbor and he spends the day "wandering around, wondering whether or not to just get off, enroll in the U. of Hawaii. Admit that everything was over and get going." He gets back on board, spends the long journey back to the mainland dreaming a few more dreams, putting final touches on his plans for adulthood, and ends the book on an ambiguous note, in a storm at sea just off the coast of New England, wondering whether he could swim to shore if the "Malibu" went down.
Herndon's latest book seems formless -- though appealing because it is beautifully written, because the central character is interesting and because his life is full of odd, colorful incidents -- but it is really more than a fragment of autobiography. It is cunningly organized, like a long poem whose symbols interact constantly on a subliminal level. It is no accident that The Explorer, peeling potatoes on the deck of a beat-up old merchant vessel, sometimes resembles Huck Finn floating down the Mississippi on a raft.