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Against the Tides of Mediocrity : OUTERBRIDGE REACH, By Robert Stone (Ticknor & Fields: $21.95; 409 pp.)

March 01, 1992|RICHARD EDER

Even the climate in "Outerbridge Reach" speaks corruption. It declares America's decline in loyalty, valor, love, republican virtue, individual pride, sound workmanship and the tang of the wilderness. Global consumer greed equals global warming; it has been the mildest winter in 100 years: "The ambiguity of the weather made time seem slack and the year spiritless."

Such is the opening and theme of Robert Stone's novel about a man's ill-fated revolt against the moral entropy of the day. Owen Browne's revolt is set off by a defective plastic tube, made in South Korea, in the bilge-pump of the spanking new 45-foot sloop he is delivering to a customer. It is the top line of a Connecticut boatyard which, despite its suggestion of a stout New England maritime heritage, is owned by a conglomerate. The boat founders, and Owen limps humiliatingly into a company dock on the New Jersey coast.

It prefigures what will happen later in the book when Owen, striking a blow against mediocrity--his own as well as the world's; he writes the yacht company's ads--sails single-handed in a round-the-world race. He is sponsored by the conglomerate and, once again, betrayed by it. What can a heart of oak do in an oak-veneer world? Specifically, what can it do in a South Atlantic gale sailing a shoddy fiberglass boat, built on the cheap in the Far East on a plan ripped off from a Western designer?

If novels were presidential candidates, "Outerbridge Reach" would be Patrick Buchanan; partly because of its libertarian bent--its man-alone against the sea, its nativist values and its suspicion of "left-liberals," supranational capitalist octopuses and cheap foreign imports. And partly because of its teeming hyperbole, the tides of doom that rise periodically to flood out a shrewd wit and, in Stone's case, some limpid writing and an inveigling narrative current.

Owen enters the book trailing malaise. He might have been allowed a little space to develop some, but Stone over-instructs his book; every moment is a signal. His hero, vague and hesitant before he embarks on his climactic venture, is an Annapolis graduate who served in Vietnam and has found no such purpose or camaraderie since. Anne, his wife, is the handsome, half-estranged daughter of an unscrupulous tycoon. She writes for a travel magazine, tries ineffectively to make money on the stock market, and devotedly shares her husband's state of high-minded unease.

Anne and Owen are Stone's innocents, caught up unhappily in a world of rotten values, suffering from it, but finding no way out. Owen's bilge-tube mishap releases his rage. It only finds a real outlet when Thorne, who runs the conglomerate in the wake of its yachtsman-founder's mysterious disappearance, offers to let him do the round-the-world race in the latter's place.

Thorne is one of two figures of absolute evil in the book; a ruthless financial manipulator with no interests beyond his bottom line. He develops a vague affection for Owen, and a more specific one for Anne, but it is the casual benevolence of a collector. The race is marginal public relations; the boat is a cut-rate job; Owen gets no back-up and the most minimal of practice time.

If Thorne is a shadowy evil, Strickland is a full-blown Mephistopheles. He is a trendy, cynical maker of documentaries. A frustrated artist--he visits a Winslow Homer show and goes into a rage over the painter's integrity--he settles for journalistic power. He claims to show things as they are. "The people are the town, I'm the clock," he says of his subjects, but he knows that truth lies in the editing.

Stone sees in Strickland the epitome of intellectual corruption, the personification of media's power to twist and distort reality. He paints the filmmaker so garishly that he turns a potentially clever portrait into a bombastic cliche. Over and over, we hear Strickland boasting of his ability to edit whatever he wants into his films. When an assistant, viewing the raw footage after a Central American shoot, asks how to tell the good guys from the bad, Strickland replies: "When you learn to cut film, you'll decide."

A man who goes to bed with every woman he finds attractive--walking through a playground, he fondly recalls seducing a nanny there--Strickland is turned loose on Owen and Anne. Their high-mindedness, their genteel Waspiness, above all their innocence present an irresistible challenge. His drugged-out, succubus-like sidekick, Pamela, all but drools as she encounters Anne's exurbanite wholesomeness. "Oh Ronnie, you'll have such fun," she says.

Ostensibly filming an upbeat documentary about Owen and Anne, Strickland sniffs disaster and prepares to extract it. Once Owen sets out on his race, he goes to work on Anne. "There's a level at which she's never been got to," he confides to Pamela. "You can do it, if anyone can," she assures him; and she's right.

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