“I see Outerbridge Reach as a continuation of the same themes I’ve always dealt with,” Robert Stone explained to Publishers Weekly, “the ways in which people come through for each other, or fail to, and the ways in which people are always offering something more than they can deliver. Also, to some extent, it’s the state of the union; I’ve always tried to reflect what I thought was the American reality.” Stone’s latest state of the union address describes a shady neighborhood.
Before becoming a professional writer, in his thirties, Robert Stone, like Herman Melville, Jack London, and Joseph Conrad, seasoned himself at sea. Outerbridge Reach, the high school dropout’s fifth published novel, opens on a forty-five-foot sloop sailing under and beyond the Verrazano Bridge. Owen Browne, a sales executive for the Altan Marine Corporation, is auditioning a new boat from his company’s inventory. He spends his time writing promotional copy, but a vague discontent with the ease of his life impels Owen to sail the craft himself, alone. He is that figure familiar to contemporary American culture: the successful male beset by mid-life crisis. A graduate of Annapolis who left the Navy after service in Vietnam, he has spent the past twenty years acquiring the affluence that enables him to live comfortably with his wife, Anne, and his adolescent daughter Maggie on Steadman’s Island, Connecticut, within commuting distance of New York. “He felt as resigned to his private discontents as to the world’s,” concludes the opening chapter.
A tension between resignation and discontent propels the novel’s plot. When Matty Hylan, the flamboyant chief executive officer of Altan’s collapsing parent company, disappears, Owen agrees to take the boss’s place in a solo race around the world. Although his only experience with extended solitary sailing was a trip from Florida to North Carolina, he undertakes the challenge, he tells an interviewer, in order to reaffirm traditional American virtues of competition and self-reliance: “I think most of us spend our lives without ever having to find out what we’re made of. Our lives are soft in this country. In the present day, a man can live his whole life and never test his true resources.” Vaguely regretful of the compromises he has made for domesticity, Owen looks forward to the Eglantine Solo as an opportunity to pit himself against the elements: “You have ocean and the sky. Your boat and yourself. It’s a situation of ultimate self-reliance.”
An overreacher’s tale, Outerbridge Reach derives its title from a salvage yard in Staten Island owned by Owen’s father-in-law, a scrappy old cutthroat who has grown rich from rum-running, bootlegging, and other shady business deals. For all her poise, daughter Anne can never quite deny the sordid origins of her family fortune. Shortly before his nautical expedition, Owen visits the slovenly graveyard of rusty, shattered hulks. Before it became a junkyard, Outerbridge Reach had held a squalid shantytown of indigent, afflicted immigrants—“a place of loneliness, violence and terrible labor.” The site is a portent of how dreams of accomplishment remain desperately out of reach.
Stone supplies another character, Ron Strickland, to remind readers that all the world’s a salvage yard, an ugly human hovel in which very little is ever salvaged. While Owen wears an Annapolis ring, class of 1968, Ron sports a tiny ornament on a chain around his neck, the figure of a man, tied to a stake, whose eye is being consumed by a vulture. It is, he explains, the Mayan god of discomfort. Strickland’s chief way of worshiping that god is through cinema. He is a stylishly acerbic documentary filmmaker whose attitude toward mortal pretensions wavers between cynicism and nihilism. After achieving renown for Under the Life, the study of a New York prostitute whom he befriends, and LZ Bravo, an acid view of the Vietnam War, he is hired by the Hylan Corporation to document its daring leader’s adventure in circumnavigation. When Hylan vanishes, Strickland turns his cameras on Browne, a solid bourgeois man who seems perfect for the kind of gleeful deflation that is Strickland’s principal motivation in making films. “It was his job to look clearly into the dark,” reflects the filmmaker on his work, though, in an echo of Nietzsche, he is also aware of the dangers of darkness even, and especially, to those who gaze at it most brazenly. “But if you look into darkness long enough, he wondered, will it not look back into you?” Ron Strickland, who shares the same initials as the novel’s author, is a portrait of the artist as demon. Outerbridge Reach dramatizes the cosmic struggle between the romantic aspirations of Browne, who still believes in heroes such as Vince Lombardi and noble causes such as the Vietnam War, and Strickland, eager to expose all illusion as delusion.
Once the race gets under way, in the second of the novel’s two sections, the narrative cuts between the main and the mainland, between Owen’s briny ordeal and the lives of those he leaves behind. While Owen is off navigating the forty-foot vessel Nona,...
(The entire section is 2139 words.)