THE VOYAGE

By Philip Caputo

Knopf. 416 pp. $26

You can read "The Voyage," Philip Caputo's new novel, without knowledge of Melville's "Moby Dick," "Typee" and "Omoo" or Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The House of the Seven Gables," but it won't be as much fun. "The Voyage" is at once an exploration of the patrician WASP values that made America what it was in the early parts of its history and a homage to the great Transcendentalist writers who, from the heart of New England in the middle of the last century, began to question the strange, oh-so-American combinations of rectitude and greed that inform our national template.

In June 1901, Cyrus Braithwaite, a grim and wealthy Bostonian patriarch, sends his three teenage boys away from the Braithwaite summer house in Maine on the family's 46-foot sloop, the Double Eagle. They're not to return, he says, until September, and that's that. At first it doesn't look as if this "banishment" is the worst thing that could happen. The Double Eagle is well provisioned; Cyrus has provided charts and maps of the Eastern coastal waters as well as the finest navigational equipment. Ten dollars apiece as spending money for three boys and three months seems a little Spartan, but the boys are used to a certain amount of asceticism; it sets off the irrevocable fact of their own privilege as well-educated sons of America's ruling class. At first this voyage seems like it might be a lark.

Nathaniel, at 16 the eldest Braithwaite son, fancies himself a leader of men. He's full of Teddy Roosevelt dreams and is sure that their father is "testing" them. Eliot, 15, doesn't have a clue what this voyage is all about. Andrew, 13, is at the beginning just a kid who misses his mother, gets seasick at the drop of a wave and suffers panic attacks when he's out of sight of land. (Drew's advantage is that he's got a brilliant brain; Nathaniel's disadvantage is that he's fundamentally a dimwit.)

It's true that things haven't been going well at home when the boys cast off. Their father has been in a towering bad mood; he's just had a ghastly fight with their elder half-brother, Lockwood, and their beautiful mother, Elizabeth, has taken herself off to Boston to be treated for a mysterious female complaint. But the boys are entirely self-absorbed. At first they sail just a few miles down the coast to visit a girl whom Nathaniel fatuously thinks of as his sweetheart, and during the ensuing round of dances, picnics and lawn games, they pick up 19-year-old Will Terhune, a Yale man at loose ends, to augment their crew. Then Nathaniel decides, with the impetuousness of untried youth, that it would be a fine idea to sail all the way to Florida. Because he's the "leader," the other boys go along with it, even though they'll be sailing straight into the hurricane season.

There's an extensive back-story here. As far back as 1847, Cyrus's own father made his money by dumping opium on the hapless Chinese; Cyrus has a reputation as a heartless strikebreaker as he runs his New England quarry, and earlier he's been a scavenger of shipwrecks--an occupation just one baby step up from piracy. Cyrus spent his wrecking days in Southern waters, and while down there he acquired his Southern wife, the beautiful Elizabeth. In a novel like this, it goes without saying that her family is rife with secrets and misdemeanors, too.

The bulk of "The Voyage" is a sailing story, a boys' adventure tale. The hardy youths encounter just about everything you might imagine: barroom brawls, storms, more storms and then the mother of all hurricanes, a murderous and very hungry shark, a grumpy wild boar in a swamp, a grumpy long-lost relative who won't talk straight to them about their mother, a mentally retarded girl who goes after Terhune as if he's cold lemonade on a hot day.

It was Melville who conjured a perfect world for men: a sailing ship with no pesky women, and the idea of adventure just ahead. The author preaches to us about this world: "They had infected themselves with sea fever, kindled a fire that had sped young men a half century before to try their luck and test their strength in the gold fields of the West, that had shanghaied them out from under comfortable roofs to stand the trials of rounding the Horn in clipper ships: the romance and glamour of youth, and the recklessness of youth," etc., etc. (The sentence goes on for 11 more lines.) And as Melville found his dusky Fayaway, the Yale man will fall under the spell of a tropical beauty who gives him sex without New England repression.

But as the boys live out this masculine, maritime dream, hoisting sails on their vessel and trimming them again, the world of Nathaniel Hawthorne begins to rule this narrative. The sins of American fathers (and mothers) will be visited on their sons, Hawthorne insisted glumly, and he was probably right. Drew, the boy with the brain, begins to intuit that their father doesn't have their best interests at heart: Secrets, like a bad case of adolescent pimples, begin to swell just under the surface of the events in this book.

A hundred years later, a Braithwaite family historian will try to pin this horrific story down: What do the sins, the secrets, mean within the context of her family? And in a larger sense, how have the sins of both Puritans and robber barons--that fetid combination of both self-serving rectitude and conscienceless, rapacious greed--led to our own national misfortunes like Vietnam or the racial injustices that continue to plague us? Melville was correct: We must adventure. Hawthorne was correct, too: We must pay for our ancestors' greed. Philip Caputo has written an exciting action novel about that, cloaked in serious thought.

Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays.

Upcoming In Book World

The following books are scheduled to be reviewed next week in Style:

THE GREAT SHAME: And the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World, by Thomas Keneally. Reviewed by Edwin M. Yoder Jr.

UNPAID PROFESSIONALS: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-Time College Sports, by Andrew Zimbalist. Reviewed by John Greenya.

THE COMFORTS OF HOME: The American House and the Evolution of Modern Convenience, by Merritt Ierley. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.

FIVE DAYS IN LONDON: May 1940, by John Lukacs. When Winston Churchill stood alone against Nazism. Reviewed by Kai Bird.

AMELIA EARHART: The Mystery Solved, by Elgen Long and Marie Long. Reviewed by Carolyn See.