by H.M. van den Brink
Translated by Paul Vincent
(Grove Press, 134 pages, $21)
Master musicians understand that silence can be a voice, that it can be shaded and amplified to the point where a dialectic forms between notes and non-notes, heightening each. Dutch author H.M. van den Brink understands this, too. By framing his uncommonly subtle and taut novella around and outside the time of the Holocaust, he testifies with plain-spoken lyricism not only to its staggering consequences but to the fragility of happiness.
Born into a suffocating societal order, a timid working-class teenager, Anton, is inexorably drawn to the water and joins a rowing club. He's paired with David, a beautiful Jewish boy who seems to possess himself and the world with ease. As enigmatic mentor Doktor Schneiderhahn takes them deeper into an intense training regimen, a near-silent yet intense bond develops between the two boys, culminating in the summer of 1939 when Anton achieves a brief but glorious sense of completeness.
Anton's narration takes us deep into the athletic experience, particularly the physical and emotional self-doubt involved in growth. As the pair row "with our backs to the direction in which we were going," Anton comes to understand that he is not alone, and that "you must dare inflict pain on yourself in order to reach the moment where the opposite poles unite."
Van den Brink writes with an assured liquidity through time and space, and the Zen-like grace with which he invokes class, sexuality and the Holocaust--always by inference, never directly--serves as a moving embrace of the human differences we need in order to be whole.Mike Hinds
farther than any man: the rise and fall of captain james cook
by Martin Dugard
(Pocket Books, 287 pages, $25.95)
Captain James Cook, like the fictional starship captain he would inspire two centuries later, boldly went where no man had gone before. So has Martin Dugard in this breathtaking if modest tribute to the man many consider the world's greatest explorer.
An adventure writer whose biggest claim to fame has been to co-author the execrable Survivor's companion volume, Dugard demonstrates not only a firm understanding of Cook the man. but an impressive grasp of the 18th-century world in which he moved.
Cook's feats as an explorer were indeed staggering (mapping the Pacific, probing Antarctica, measuring the transit of Venus), but equally monumental was his rise from grocer's apprentice to commander of three of the most prestigious expeditions ever launched by Britain. In light of his accomplishments, it's easy to forget Cook was the first captain in British naval history to work his way up through the ranks. Dugard delves into the personal ambition as well as the exceptional political circumstances that made Cook's ascent possible, painting smart portraits of everyone from the Earl of Sandwich to King George III. At the same time, Dugard conveys in rich detail both the tedium and the terror of circumnavigating the globe in leaky wooden ships that traversed tens of thousands of nautical miles at the pace of a brisk walk.
After turning the final page of this account, the reader's only quibble will be with the brevity of Dugard's book. Cook's final voyage, on which he discovers Hawaii and meets his demise at the hands of its inhabitants, is dusted off in a scant 40 pages. This is exceptional storytelling that easily warrants a book twice as long. Matt Buckingham
by Arthur Nersesian
(Akashic Books, 203 pages, $13.95)
Joseph Aeiou is outlandishly pudgy, short and unattractive--yet strangely charming. He takes a lot of naps and drugs and always seems to be feverish. He indulges in strained pop-philosophy to justify his bad habits: "Man was cursed with a mental wattage that overlit the squalid sublet of his pointless life. That wattage turned good men into serial murderers, pedophilic stalkers, and assorted cult members. Drugs and booze were shades and tints designed to dim that needless beam of consciousness."
Aeiou idly grumbles about his lot while half-heartedly scamming his way through his final semester at Columbia. But when his fellowship is revoked without warning, he snaps, tracking down and tormenting his erstwhile benefactor: The Man, a.k.a. corporate CEO Andrew Whitlock.
Suddenly, what started as a vicarious thriller in which Angry Proles Fight Back devolves into a moronic conspiracy tale. Naturally it's a woman who screws everything up. Amy, the femme fatale in question, is Aeiou's opposite--a rich, sophisticated, dishy dame with dollar signs for eyes. When he tries to flirt with her, she makes him faint, cry and relinquish half of his apartment. She renovates the flat; then she renovates him. In a series of secret plastic-surgery operations, Aeiou is transformed from lout to long-legged, well-muscled male model.
The plot corkscrews about 50 more times, ending in a series of revelations and counter-revelations that offer only an incidental, unsatisfying triumph of the Little Guy. If only the author, former Portable Lower East Side editor Arthur Nersesian, had abandoned the clichéd meddlesome woman and ridiculous plot contrivances, this could've been a classic downtrodden-loser-gets-revenge novel instead of an insubstantial farce. Becky Ohlsen