PHILIP CAPUTO’S new novel The Voyage (Knopf, $26.00) is an old-fashioned book. Set for the most part around the turn of the century, it chronicles the adventures of the three Braithwaite brothers as they pilot their father’s schooner Double Eagle down the east coast. As in any boy’s sea story, the young Braithwaites must test themselves against the inevitable calamities to earn their manhood.
But the stakes of The Voyage are not simply life, limb and honor. Caputo has framed the narration so that it is–ostensibly–the product of a granddaughter, Sybil Braithwaite, who now, at the end of the century, her own life crumbling, is investigating the circumstances surrounding their trip. As a family, the Braithwaites, like the Kennedys, or like America–Caputo makes all this painfully plain–seem to have fallen from grace, their high moral purpose and history of accomplishment tarnished, gone to ruin. By interrogating the Double Eagle’s log and her ancestors’ letters, Sybil hopes to discover the source of their (and maybe her) downfall.
On top of that frame, though rarely used, is a first person narrator, Sybil’s old roommate from Mount Holyoke, and this woman would seem to be the ultimate narrator of the book. The effect could be kaleidoscopic, but Caputo never lets it get in the way of the boys’ story. After the second chapter, in fact, it disappears for hundreds of pages, resurfacing only as a tap on the shoulder.
The first and overarching mystery of The Voyage is why Cyrus Braithwaite sent his three teenaged sons off to sea from the family homeplace in Maine with no instructions except that they must not return for three months. Their mother is in a hospital in Boston, and Cyrus has been acting strangely. Is this merely a test of their manhood or is there some graver family tragedy they’re not privy to? The world, to these boys, is a mystery, yet they trust their father enough to set sail with no particular destination.
Like Cormac McCarthy in All the Pretty Horses, Caputo sends his innocents out into a treacherous world and then lovingly documents their progress. Because they have no set destination, no true narrative goal other than to become men, proving to themselves that they possess both physical and moral courage, the novel often seems episodic, almost picaresque. They race another ship and add a new friend to the crew. They have lunch with some young ladies. They visit New York and get into a bar brawl. They survive a storm. They dive on a wreck. Sharks! A hurricane!
As they go, they bump into people who knew their grandfather, a Confederate captain killed in the War Between the States (while their father served in the Union navy), and others who knew their father. Conversations lead to stories, and these stories fill in the missing pieces of their colorful family’s history.
The Voyage has a strong if lurching momentum, and the author has imagined his world fully. The writing is richly detailed, even ornamented, bordering on the Victorian, with big set-piece introductions and heavy scene-setting. Caputo has done his research, and delivers the sea in sometimes lush, operatic style, like N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s work. When Caputo is narrating physical events, the prose and action rise to meet each other; his hurricane is magnificent, a brilliant achievement (The top of the wave, exposed entirely to the wind, had been blown almost flat). But the boys’ interior speculations, and Sybil’s, often seem overwrought, the rhetoric wildly high-flown, almost Faulknerian in their shared obsession with the family’s loss of moral vigor and the buried existence of some original sin. For example, this windy passage, redolent of old magnolia: No, those mossy scandals had not been his quest, but the expurgated chapters about which only vague hearsay existed. Buzzes in the air, half-known tales borne on the currents of time, about instances of gross fraud and greed, acts of violence and cruelty that Braithwaites had inflicted, not only on other people, but even on their own and maybe especially on their own.
In his combat memoir, A Rumor of War, Caputo showed the same concern for moral rectitude, employing the same high literary idiom, but that was a first book, and Vietnam, as a subject for moral investigation, could withstand any gale. Here the prose overwhelms what should be the human heart of the story. And the prose, according to the frame, is Sybil’s, not Caputo’s, so that device, rickety to begin with, reveals itself to be an empty confection. Likewise, any interesting effects that might crop up from a middle-aged woman writing from the perspective of teenaged boys are never plumbed.
The boys end up in Cuba, and one falls–as one of Cormac McCarthy’s boys falls–for an exotic and terribly abused local girl, with tragic results. The main story ends with the boys being repatriated to Key West, and Sybil takes over in a stagey epilog, neatly answering all the larger questions brought up in the body of the novel. Though Caputo has had a leisurely 375 pages to provide clues and fit the puzzle together, he does most of his detective work here, laying everything out for the reader instead of letting us discover it. For this, the first-person roommate is required, since the evidence is related in what amounts to Q & A dialogue, as at the end of a bad Agatha Christie movie.
The frame and the secrets revealed are old-fashioned as well, lifted straight (and with a straight face) from Absalom, Absalom! But in Faulkner, the two roommates and the melodramatic backstory of Thomas Sutpen and Charles Bon serve a greater purpose. A Canadian, Shreve needs Quentin to educate him about America and the South, and Quentin–doomed, as we and Faulkner both know; in fact, already dead of suicide–needs Shreve there to listen, to understand what he can’t quite put into words. In this charged context, his answer to Shreve’s “Why do you hate the South,” spoken and then thought over and over in the cold New England dark, has a crushing and terrible significance. In The Voyage, Sybil’s answer to a similar question holds no such gravity. It only reminds us of the novel’s empty pretensions, in the process cancelling out its small but honest charms.