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Bubbles From the Barthtub : THE LAST VOYAGE OF SOMEBODY THE SAILOR, By John Barth (Little, Brown: $22.95; 573 pp.)

February 24, 1991|John Leonard | Leonard is fiction critic for The Nation, book critic for Fresh Air on National Public Radio, TV critic for New York magazine, media critic for CBS Sunday Morning and a columnist for New York Newsday

John Barth's been a while recovering from "Letters" (1979), and so have I. "Letters" was an endless epistolary novel in which characters from previous Barth fictions complained--in letters to their dead fathers, their unborn children, one another and themselves--about a lack of pattern in their imagined lives.

As if for some fresh air, Barth then left this library of self-reference, in a boat, to worry the tricky currents of "Sabbatical" and "Tidewater Tales." He is back with a huge appetite. "The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor" is many boats and several libraries, not quite so long as "Letters," and a lot more cheerful, but likewise an elephantiasis of narrative parts.

On the one narrative hand, "Somebody" is the 20th-Century American story of Simon William Behler, growing up during World War II on the eastern shore of Maryland, wanting to be a famous explorer, flying in a plane and, with poor doomed Daisy, discovering sex. For professional reasons in the 1960s, Simon Behler will change his name to Bill Baylor when he becomes a writer of science fiction and a New Journalist--"a merchandisable blend of candor and reticence, by a graphical fact and an imaginative projection." He will marry Jane, and divorce her after she tries to drown him in the Virgin Islands. He will find Julia, a world-famous photographer and Daisy's green-eyed younger sister, on his second trip to Moorish Spain. Off the coast of Sri Lanka, trying to reverse the last voyage of Sindbad the Sailor, they will drown.

Then again, maybe not.

On the other narrative hand, "Somebody" is the medieval Arabian story of Sindbad himself, tired and cranky after six voyages, telling the same old stories of floating islands and monstrous fish, serpents and diamonds, cannibals and apes. Sindbad tells these stories, in a weeklong series of suppers at his Baghdad digs, to the usual greedy merchants, sultry slave girls, imperial spies and a camel.

Also at the table, matching Sindbad story for story, is Bill Baylor, now called Bey al-Loor, who was picked up by one of Sindbad's trawlers in the Persian Gulf, 1,500 miles from Sri Lanka and 1,000 years early for the New Journalism: "I was (and am)," he says, "not in charted space but in recorded time."

He's in neither, really. He's in literature, in Sir Richard Burton's translation of the "Arabian Nights." We're invited to think of Scheherazade as the first New Journalist.

In Baghdad, City of Peace, they don't like Baylor's stories as much as they like Sindbad's. Says one merchant, who is also trying to cut a deal for Sindbad's daughter Yasmin, who may or may not have been damaged by pirates, "Give me familiar, substantial stuff: rocs and rhinoceri, ifrits and flying carpets--Inshallah!--till our final swallow. Let no outlander imagine that such crazed fabrications as machines that mark the hour or roll themselves down the road will ever take the place of our homely Islamic realism, the very capital of narrative." Besides: "A story without a moral is a meal without mint tea."

Throughout "Somebody," these two narratives shake hands, or are pumped on like a slide rule to play their logarithmic scales. The voyages of Sindbad and Baylor correspond, of course, in clever ways, with the same shipwrecks, the same subtext of incest and the same secret language of popped vowels and chewed consonants. But Sindbad is weary of all water. Rather than undertake a seventh trip, especially to Serendib, which you can't get to anyway except by accident, he'd prefer to stay put in Baghdad, where he's "drained his ponds and fountains, sanded his gardens, throttled his peafowl, cactused and cameled his courtyard." Whereas Bill Baylor, like Bill Bailey, wants to come home. In return for a promise to write up his stories, Baylor talks Sindbad into sending him, with green-eyed Yasmin, to Serendib in the Sailor's stead.

This much is clear: Baylor is drowning in stories; he needs to recover his own life. But what is life, as they must have said in old Baghdad, but a voyage unto death, which we put off by telling stories? We are all born in water, the first passage, and, after the usual strandings and bereavements, our memories go down the drain. There's even a hint, in Barth's account of Baylor's affair with Julie Moore ("Jew-Moor"), of deadly cancer, genuine loss, real pain, obscured by literary flourish. Another sort of novel might be submerged in these waters. A third, too, is implicit in the chapters devoted to Simon Behler's Tidewater boyhood.

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