Ever since I read his wonderful Crossers (WW 11/21/09) I’ve been meaning to get back to Philip Caputo. Here I am with The Voyage, and I shouldn’t have waited so long.
Crossers is set in the Arizona desert and chronicles the world of illegals–the migrants, the racketeers on both sides of the border, law enforcement, and the landowners caught in between. I found there a myriad of mythic parallels, including a descent into the underworld. The setting for The Voyage couldn’t be more different. Although Arizona appears, the main action happens asea.
Cyrus Braithwaite is a sailor, though he’s made a fortune quarrying Maine granite. In the summer of 1901, he hands the family schooner and thirty dollars over to his three sons–ages 16, 15, and 13–and tells them he doesn’t want to see them till September. He doesn’t care where they go or what they do as long as they don’t go near the family manse in Boston. The boys are suitably baffled, literally out to sea about the whole thing. Thence begins the voyage.
The tale is told by a descendent of one of the sons, a century hence, a woman appropriately named Sybil, who has carted a load of family documents to Arizona where she can be psychologically, if not physically, as far from the ocean as possible. She may have left the family pain behind with the new location, but she has brought with her all the history she can lay her hands on and proceeds to try putting together the saga of the voyage and its surrounding mysteries using the log book of The Double Eagle as the central document.
The story we get as readers is framed twice. Sybil has constructed what amounts to a novel, using her imagination to turn fragments of information into actual scenes and conversations–putting flesh on an incomplete skeleton is the way it’s put at one point. Then, we’re seeing her narrative through the eyes of an unidentified narrator (If he/she is identified, I missed it and don’t care to go back and find out.) whom she’s trying to convince of the validity of her narrative and its conclusions. The effect is that we are often protoplasmically in the middle of the boys’ adventures, then suddenly seeing them in freeze-frame while the recreators of their lives discuss the picture. It’s a fascinating experience in understanding how elusive reality–particularly historical reality. Particularly when it’s personal–can be.
The Voyage is a journey from Maine to Cuba and back by boys too young to be attempting the feat. It’s also a journey into their family’s past, into mysteries they are ill-equipped to investigate, let alone understand. Betrayals worthy of Sophocles, though peculiarly American in their nature. It’s an odyssey with a number of parallels to Odysseus’s. A siren call, a Circean interlude. There’s an ill-advised descent into the underworld with a one-eyed Orpheus as a guide. And all of this viewed through the eyes of a diviner, so distant in time and space that much of what she sees and tells qualifies as little more than a phantasmagoric collection of guesses. And yet, as art, the story–the stories, for Sybil’s own story as well of the stories of the family she talks to as she gathers her documentation, is part of the mix–as real and as emotionally compelling as ever a novel can be.
I couldn’t name a better writer on the American scene than Caputo.