Like that of Under the Volcano (1947), the story of Ultramarine is deceptively easy to summarize. On one level, it tells the story of forty-eight hours on board the tramp steamer Oedipus Tyrannus, “outward bound for hell”: forty-eight hours of unloading, loading, drinking, whoring, gossiping, and drudgery. On another level, in a series of internal monologues, it charts a sensitive young man’s confrontation with the human problems of sexuality, class conflict, and vocation, and the more philosophical problems of the nature of time and the status of the past—for in his mind Eugene Dana Hilliot’s Merseyside past is as vividly alive as the present: his childhood, his troubled relationship with his parents, his schoolboy traumas, and the idyll of his innocent relationship with Janet. In sum, then, Ultramarine tells of a spot in time when its protagonist is neither man nor boy, but both anticipates and achieves (at the novel’s close) a leap forward into manhood and acceptance of life, and also gazes back intently into childhood.
One hour out of Tsjang-Tsjang, as he spies on them at ease in the mess room, Hilliot dreams of being accepted by the crew. He misses a chance when a pigeon gets stuck atop the mainmast; it is Norman who brings down the bird, to the applause of all. Yet youth brings joy—on entering the harbor, for example, from which wafts the promise of exotic cargoes and erotic treats ashore. In these, however, Hilliot will not or dare not share. Nightfall finds him instead alone aboard, where an invitation to the quartermaster’s cabin leads to a proposition of a still more unwelcome kind. The night ends with a retreat, in dreams, into the securities of the past.
Next morning, stagnated at port, the crew turns to gossip and horseplay for amusement. Meanwhile, fed up with Andy’s taunts about his class and youth, Hilliot retaliates: trouble brews. His meditations center on celibacy, Janet, and the horrors of syphilis, the...
(The entire section is 817 words.)