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CLOSEQUARTERS by William Golding (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $16.95; 245 pp.)

June 07, 1987|Richard Hough | Hough is the author of "The Bounty" (Penguin).

William Golding's new novel tells of an abortive attempt to sail to Australia in about 1814. The vessel is a frigate converted to carry passengers, and what a rum bunch they are! They include the pretty, fluttery Zenobia Brocklebank who "parleys with the common seamen" and is allegedly married to "our sodden marine artist," Wilmot; Mr. Prettiman, an avowed Republican, and his fiancee Miss Granham "who looked capable of repelling borders with her expression"; little Mr. Pike and his tiny children, Arabella and Phoebe, and so on.

The narrator is Edmund Fitz-Henry Talbot, a young, ambitious, sentimental aristocrat, tall in stature, short on common sense, who falls in love with the fetching Miss Marion Chumley. Talbot's servant is the weird Wheeler, who at one point is apparently drowned.

Talbot's friend is Charles Summers, the ship's first lieutenant, and just about the only sane and sober officer, excepting Capt. Anderson who failed, alas, to examine the ship's timbers before departing on this long and arduous voyage.

The reader must assume that this crank vessel with its crank crew and curious passenger list has reached the Equator; and before long the reader concludes that it is a near-miracle that it has survived as far as this and sailed so fast. It must also be assumed that the intolerable quantities of weed adhering to the ex-frigate's bottom, evidence of many months at sea, are left over from some previous voyage.

That is not the end of the ship's misfortunes, for by a remarkable piece of inebriated seamanship, it loses its topmasts in moderate seas and is soon back, becalmed and helpless, in the misty doldrums, while our hero recovers (or does he?) from a nasty knock on the head by a rope.

Suddenly a sail is sighted. Bonaparte, it is surmised, may have sent a flyer to intercept them. The passengers help man the guns. But at length, the strange vessel identifies itself as another British frigate, the Alcyone. And to stretch coincidence even further, who does it have on board, saved from the sea after three days and nights in the water, "his once pale face blotched with the wounds of too much salt and sun," but the servant Wheeler?

As if by silent consent, the two frigates are now lashed together; there is much rejoicing and mutual hospitality, culminating in a ball. This is a very prolonged and elaborated, but presumably spontaneous, entertainment, with dancing to a band, while Lady Somerset's fortepiano is produced and Miss Chumley plays it delightfully. Poetry of a parochial and personal nature is composed and recited, amid much laughter, especially at the quatrain concerning the effect of the ship's food:

We find

That the vittles we have on board caused so much

wind

That it is strange the ship is so still and steady

And has not been blowed to Sydney Cove already

No one appears urgently concerned to continue the voyage to the Cape, where at least there would be fresh, less-flatulent, food.

When at last the Alcyone sails away, soon outstripping Capt. Anderson's frigate, the troubles multiply again. The brandy-sodden ship's carpenter, Gibbs, catches his finger between two moving planks, clear evidence that the vessel is rending. Much of the rest of this sea saga is concerned with describing in immense technical detail the valiant but unsuccessful efforts by the crew both to clean off the weed and at the same time frap, or hold together with rope, the hull of our hapless frigate.

Unfortunately, the success of one operation only worsens the other condition, leading to a good part of the keel being torn from the ship's bottom. After that, there can surely be only one ending, especially as the ship appears to have no boats. Talbot records "a certain comical element in our situation" and then allows his narrative, rather than the ship, to sink. All the reader is told is that he survives, somehow, and apologizes to his "conjectural audience which may have been startled by the abruptly ended journal of 'book two' but may be mollified and excited as much as I can contrive by this 'puff' for a third volume!"

This reviewer confesses to being totally mystified by Golding's sequel to "Rites of Passage." It is neither an allegory, nor a fantasy, nor an adventure, nor even a complete novel, as it has a beginning, a middle (of sorts) but an ending only at some unspecified future date when Golding chooses to complete it, if he does.

When the motley crowd of passengers start one of their vigorous and often amusing conversations, "Close Quarters" becomes a sort of maritime restoration comedy. But as Dryden, master of that art, wrote, "Plots, true or false, are necessary things."

So is terminological accuracy. But Golding calls the heads privies among other solecisms. And the words buzz (for rumor), flag, flannel, rag and others are all late 19th- or 20th-Century words, as is the slang term Pompey for Portsmouth.

What is there left to believe or disbelieve? Nothing much.

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