Looking for a Ship

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

John McPhee’s readership can be divided into two parts: the geologists and all the rest. For the latter (presumably the larger contingent), it has been hard going in recent years, though both THE CONTROL OF NATURE and RISING FROM THE PLAINS included more human detail and less plate tectonics than their geological predecessors, IN SUSPECT TERRAIN and BASIN AND RANGE. There have been other gems, too, such as “Heirs of General Practice,” about idealistic young doctors in family practice (included in the collection TABLE OF CONTENTS). For many readers, however, LOOKING FOR A SHIP will be McPhee’s most satisfying book since COMING TO THE COUNTRY, his 1977 best-seller about modern-day homesteaders in Alaska.

LOOKING FOR A SHIP is the narrative of a voyage on an American merchant ship, the STELLA LYKES, from Charleston, South Carolina, to the west coast of South America and back, via the Panama Canal. McPhee uses this voyage to dramatize the sad state of the U.S. Merchant Marine and to portray the men who still make their living on the sea. (Geologists will find that they are not entirely neglected, as McPhee quotes some wonderful snippets from Charles Darwin on the geology of South America’s Pacific coast.)

Here, as in so many of McPhee’s books, there is a particularly vivid portrait of an individual who sums up in his character and experience much of the history of the subject at hand--in this case, Captain Paul McHenry Washburn, a veteran of the old school, whose crusty manner and supreme competence bring to mind John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn.

With its luminous and telling details, its deadpan humor (the Masters, Mates, and Pilots hall in Charleston is located in a shabby building “not far from the Truluck Chiropractic Auto Accident Clinic”), and its unobtrusively artful structure, LOOKING FOR A SHIP is a delight from the first page to the last.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVI, July, 1990, p.2043.

Chicago Tribune. September 16, 1990, XIV, p.6.

The Christian Science Monitor. September 21, 1990, p.14.

Christianity and Crisis. L, October22, 1990, p.313.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, July 1, 1990, p.919.

Library Journal. CXV, August, 1990, p.128.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 26, 1990, p.1.

National Review. XLII, November 19, 1990, p.48.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, September 23, 1990, p.3.

Publishers Weekly CCXXXVII, July 20, 1990, p.43.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, September 9, 1990, p.1.

Looking for a Ship

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Admirers of John McPhee have noticed a common element in his many books, as well as in his regular articles in The New Yorker: McPhee likes to write about people who are confident that their work is important and are determined to do their jobs well. The canoemaker in The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975), the vegetable-growers and the chef in Giving Good Weight (1979), the geologist in Basin and Range (1981), and the men of the merchant marine in Looking for a Ship are all enthusiastic about what they do. When McPhee moves into the various worlds where his people live, observing their work and obtaining answers to hundreds of questions, he takes his readers along, and they find themselves fascinated by subjects which may be extremely remote from their own natural interests.

One does not have to be a sailor, for example, to admire the men McPhee describes in Looking for a Ship. Their love of the sea is indicated by the very title of the book. Since the number of American merchant ships is steadily declining, the men who wish to go to sea must take turns. They stay on shore for months, living on the earnings from the last voyage, until they have moved high enough in the rotation system to be given slots on ships. Furthermore, because of the scarcity of ships under the American flag, they sometimes have to accept jobs below their actual rank. It is obvious that a man who is willing to live under these uncertainties in order sometimes to get to sea must find satisfaction in his job.

Although McPhee is primarily a reporter, not an advocate, it is obvious that he considers the loss of America’s merchant fleet to foreign flags and the replacement of American mariners by ill-trained, cheap labor, willing to work under unsafe conditions, a trend which at some point the United States will have reason to regret.

Typically, McPhee dramatizes social and economic changes by observing their effects on the lives of individuals. In the case of the U.S. Merchant Marine, it is an old friend, Andy Chase, who provides McPhee with his opportunity. It is time for Chase to look for a ship. At his suggestion, McPhee comes to Charleston with him, goes through the process with him, and when Chase is hired as second mate on the Stella Lykes, makes arrangements to ship out with him on a run through the Panama Canal and along the west coast of South America. This voyage not only gives McPhee a perspective which research alone cannot provide but also enables him to draw his readers along from incident to incident in the manner of fiction.

There is no doubt that many of the days aboard a ship at sea are routine. In his third chapter, McPhee sums up many of those periods with the first day he chooses to describe in detail. It is the twentieth day out, and the ship is proceeding toward Valparaiso, Chile. Dramatically, McPhee describes the darkness on the bridge and the cool sea air. At first, the helmsman, Vernon McLaughlin, is only a voice. As dawn comes, however, he becomes first a vague shape, then a visible person, whose physical characteristics suggest the staunchness of his character. In this chapter, too, comes the first physical description of Andy. Although his observations have been quoted regularly in the first sections of the book, he has been as invisible as the helmsman in the dark. Now he, too, can be seen clearly, a tall, skinny man with reddish hair and beard, whose Maine cap proclaims his origins.

In this scene, the description of Captain Paul McHenry Washburn is delayed until this personality has been established. McPhee has commented on the captain’s tendency to worry; his characteristic tenseness is illustrated by the fact that he is in continual motion in the bridge area. As he walks, he talks in unrelated fragments, such as those McPhee quotes, evidently sometimes directed toward himself, sometimes to anyone who cares to listen, but often to the ship, his closest compamon. More important than his eccentricities thus described, more important than the physical description, still to come, is the sum of his achievement at work. He runs a happy ship; his crew have sometimes risked the loss of a job in order to sail with him. They respect him because he knows his business; they like to work for him because he also respects his crew, treats them as professionals, and leaves them to do their jobs. Fven before McPhee describes Captain Washburn in his shore-leave clothes, immaculately dressed, solid-looking, with an expressive face and a firm jaw, the captain has become a person. As McPhee comments, “If he sometimes seems to prefer talking with himself, there’s an obvious reason: he’s the most interesting person on the ship.”

In this scene, McPhee has touched on another point which he stresses throughout the book, the fact that however routine a day at sea may appear to be, it always has the potential for disaster. There is the danger of collision with another ship. A vessel with forty thousand tons of momentum cannot come...

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