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FICTION

Ship of Fools : EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF. By Beryl Bainbridge (Carroll & Graf: $21; 224 pp.)

November 24, 1996|Susan Heeger | Susan Heeger is co-author of "The Gardens of California" (Clarkson Potter/RH)

Its very name described its lordliness on the sea. So vast its passengers got lost on it, so strong it was thought invincible, the Titanic remains one of the most compelling images of prideful folly in modern maritime history. Who doesn't know the story of its maiden voyage and midnight meeting with an iceberg, chandeliers blazing, orchestra tootling out ragtime? Two hours later, mortally wounded, the great double-hulled wonder heeled over and sank, sucking 1,500 people to watery graves.

Ever since, the facts have been hashed and rehashed, the 1912 voyage re-created in articles, books, documentaries and feature and television films. We can't seem to get enough: how many millions of rivets went into that hull and how much oak paneling and inlaid mother of pearl were used to decorate the Palm Court, the Grand Staircase and the first-class writing room? Why weren't they carrying more lifeboats? And, of course, how did it feel to be a passenger--to spend five days downing champagne with the glitterati till the jolt came, the lights blinked and ice showered across the decks?

Joining the throng of Titania is a fast-paced novel that blends known facts with fiction into a coming-of-age tale that also captures a social moment. For acclaimed British novelist Beryl Bainbridge, tragic death is only part of it. What interests her are the thorny moral questions--of fate versus human intervention, of compassionate acts versus an individual's responsibility for himself. Twenty-two hundred people--all with dreams, stories, families, futures--came together on the ship and eventually faced the same nightmare. Many were poor and traveled in steerage, never glimpsing the fabled Palm Court. Others labored below deck, hauling coal and stoking the engines. At the top of the heap, oblivious to dirt and danger, a couple of Astors, a Guggenheim and a Lord and Lady Duff Gordon dined formally and lolled in furs, observing the good form that went with their set. But when all hell broke loose and the upper-crust made for the lifeboats, there were heroes and cowards from every class, those who saved themselves and those whose first thought was for others.

One of the book's heroes, much to his own surprise, turns out to be Morgan, the narrator, a 21-year-old adopted nephew of J. P. Morgan, who owns the Titanic and its shipping line. A bit of a ne'er-do-well, Morgan drinks too much and hangs around with other moneyed wastrels while considering what to make of himself. In search of direction, he listens to just about anyone: Riley, the low-life seaman; Willis, the icy girl he wants; his cronies, who inadvertently show him the ugliness of his own kind. His true mentor is Scurra, a mysterious, charismatic fellow passenger familiar with Morgan's past as an abused and abandoned orphan. Scurra understands that Morgan's beginnings have set him apart from his ilk and made him complicated and kind in ways his friends will never be. Though Morgan's view of himself keeps shifting, Scurra awakens him to something solid at his core.

Bainbridge, author of 14 short, witty books (the most recent, the 1994 "Birthday Boys"), tells, as usual, a deceptively simple story. It opens with the thunderous moment before the ship sinks and then cuts away to a book-length flashback of the events leading up to it. Throughout Morgan's day-to-day account of social lunches, shipboard intrigues and musicales (all full of perfect-pitch details about manners, clothes, food and slangy chit-chat), the air of doom drifts like a deadly gas. People joke about accidents and bet on the boat's arrival time in New York. There's talk of thickening ice and nearby ships changing course for warmer waters. Meanwhile, the Titanic's designer is busy fussing over bathroom taps and passengers are having affairs and scrambling to make social and business connections.

All of which, considering what we know is coming, adds up to an ongoing meditation on fate--the fate that puts some people on a sinking ship and moves others to change their plans or miss the boat; the fate that hooks up an aspiring couturier with the perfect model and then drowns them both. "We are like lambs in the field," Scurra muses, "cropping the grass under the eye of the butcher who chooses first one then another to meet his requirements."

Yet, as Morgan discovers, something inside us has a say in things too, and through adversity we come face to face with what we're made of. No theoretical discussions of character can prepare him for his own courage on the night of every-man-for-himself. In fact, the chief pleasure of the book--apart from the thrill of sailing the Titanic with Bainbridge--lies in watching this likable goof-up emerge from his shell of privilege and become a person to be reckoned with.

F.Y.I., Titanic buffs: W. W. Norton has just released two new nonfiction books on the legendary boat: In "Titanic: Destination Disaster, The Legends and the Reality," John P. Eaton and Charles A. Haas update their 1987 book, which attempted to make sense of the tragedy. Steven Biel's "Down With the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster" examines America's complicated reactions to the sinking and what this says about America.

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