The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor

Although John Barth has at times been too clever for his own good, as in the pretentiously dull GILES GOAT-BOY and the even more monumentally unreadable LETTERS, his undeniable genius for baroque narrative orchestration has resulted in three of the most interesting and pleasurable fictions of the past few decades: the mock eighteenth century novel, THE SOT-WEED FACTOR, the Chinese-box ficciones of LOST IN THE FUNHOUSE, and now, what may well prove his best novel to date, THE LAST VOYAGE OF SOMEBODY THE SAILOR. If this “mid-size” novel—this garden of forking paths and narrative delights—has a fault, it is its not being long enough, as long as the works which inspired it: THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, the Indian OCEAN OF STORY, Cervantes’ DON QUIXOTE, James Joyce’s FINNEGANS WAKE, and all those vast novels and still vaster encyclopedias which Jorge Luis Borges preferred to imagine rather than write.

The premise of Barth’s novel is deceptively simple. Baylor (Born Simon William Behler), a writer of declining years, popularity, and potency (sexual as well as literary), confined to a hospital bed (in what may be a mental hospital), tells his “familiar stranger” (a doctor or nurse) the story of the six nights he once upon a time swapped tales with none other than Sindbad the Sailor back in old Baghdad. Sindbad’s rehashing of his six adventures and Baylor’s telling of how he came to be where he is eventually merge not only with one another but with a host of other autobiographical narratives. All, however, manage to...

(The entire section is 631 words.)