The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor Summary

John Barth


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, Scheherazade, the heroine of the medieval Arabic short-story collection The Thousand and One Nights (ca. 900) and her sister Dunyazade have now grown old. Their husbands and even their children have died. They wonder if their fabulous story is finally coming to an end. Meanwhile, at a lavish banquet, the mysterious Somebody the Sailor is telling the people of Baghdad about his many voyages. He is matched in this storytelling feat by Baghdad’s most famous hero, Sindbad the Sailor.

In another dimension, Somebody was once Simon Behler, an American journalist. Simon Behler is a young boy in Maryland in the 1930’s. Simon is a typical young boy with parents, an elder brother, and cousins, but he also had a female twin, Bijou, who died as both of them were coming out of the womb. Simon always feels that he experiences the absent Bijou’s feelings as well as his own. The most memorable adventure of Simon’s boyhood is going up in a small plane with the aviator Howard Garton. Simon sees his entire community from above and begins to perceive it as but one in a number of possible worlds. This adventure has its emotional parallel when Simon is fourteen, when he conducts a passionate affair with Daisy Moore, a slightly older girl with a family history of madness (her mother is periodically hospitalized in an insane asylum). Daisy initiates him sexually with humor and tenderness, and he faces teenage ethical dilemmas such as whether to tell the druggist for whom he works that he stole a can of floor polish from the store in order to help his family. The curtain falls on childhood innocence as Simon’s older brother, Joe Junior, is reported missing while fighting in World War II Sindbad the Sailor is perplexed by the mysterious Somebody, whose modern-day American origins are even more mysterious to him as Sindbad’s mythical Arabic origins are to the modern reader.


(The entire section is 793 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Barth, Johm. “Conversation with Prime Maximalist John Barth.” Interview by Bin Ramke and Donald Revell. Bloomsbury Review, 1991. This interview with Barth reveals some of the autobiographical bases of the novel’s narrative.

Bowen, Zack R. A Reader’s Guide to John Barth. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. An accessibly written general overview; concentrates on the inverse relationship between Sindbad and Simon/Somebody.

Kirk, James. Organicism as Reenchantment: Whitehead, Prigogine, and Barth. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. Comments on Barth’s mystique of storytelling as well as its formal relation to modern science.

Lindsay, Alan. Death in the Funhouse: John Barth and Poststructuralist Aesthetics. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. Sometimes complicated but rewarding insights on the complexity of Barth’s vision.

Tobin, Patricia. John Barth and the Anxiety of Continuance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Emphasizes the affirmative quality of the novel, seeing the modern-day Simon as replenishing the legend of the storied Sinbad.