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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Staying in Tune

From the Bookshelf Dept.: Another journey back a quarter-century, for my review of a book that itself saluted the nautical traditions of an earlier day.


HARVEY OXENHORN TRAVELLED TO GREENLAND aboard a refurbished tall ship. Throughout his journey he was stymied by the challenge to “go aloft,” the frightening process of “climbing the shrouds and then slithering out along the yardarms to tend sails.”

It’s a nautical tightrope act, and it parallels the literary tightrope act of the book Oxenhorn wrote recounting his travels. A poet who was previously familiar with sailing only through the literature he taught, he has given us a well-thought-out, nicely detailed narrative that gives an unselfconscious account of his own growth throughout the tense trip.

On the face of it, it was an expedition to study humpback whales and other animal life in the arctic; for Oxenhorn, it was an escape into adventure. Although there’s a feeling that he was fleeing more than he reveals to us, it’s enough to understand that he had to get away. Then, showing what Leslie Fiedler identifies in literature as the “home as hell” syndrome, he sets out, Huck-like, on a raft on the river.

Only in this case it’s a vintage barkentine touring the Atlantic Ocean and the Labrador Sea.

Because he comes aboard with no practical seamanship, he is trained from the deck up_and shares that training with us. As the tasks are introduced, so are the characters on board, working through the crew and scientists until we meet Captain George Nichols, every bit as accessible and enigmatic as any ship’s captain in literature.

The first couple of chapters of Tuning the Rig present Oxenhorn as a man very much out of place, whining a little too often about a trip he may have chosen by mistake. Gradually – and I think this is a very controlled technique, a sign of Oxenhorn’s storytelling skill – he grows more comfortable with the ship, becomes part of its crew. And so, vicariously, do we.

This isn’t a narrative built purely on pitch and toss. The hazards are there, and, as always, they make for exciting conflicts. But it’s a journey of self-discovery for the author, shared with candor.

Invitations to read about a writer’s spiritual growth should be accepted with caution: they get awfully self-indulgent and it’s easy to switch off all interest and go back to reading a mystery novel.

Oxenhorn writes in the first person but presents this character of himself with ironic detachment. It’s a tough trick to pull off, but in doing so he has placed himself among the best of the here’s-how-I-felt-about-it travel writers (Bruce Chatwin is a name that comes to mind).

Tuning the Rig is a book without photos, but you’ll find detailed sketches of the ship. There’s a lot more than souvenir tale-telling here. By the time you finish, you’ll have sailed to Greenland and back and collected as friends a most incongruous set of characters, not the least of them a stuffy poetry professor who learned to loosen up and enjoy life.

Tuning the Rig by Harvey Oxenhorn.
Harper & Row, 281 pp., $22.95.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 19 September 1990

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