Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1068
Building on his knowledge of the sea gleaned as a member of the U.S. Navy, a merchant marine seaman, and a yachtsman, Robert Stone in Outerbridge Reach tells an exciting but disturbing story of the challenges of transoceanic yachting, the heights and depths of human daring, the class conflicts beneath...
(The entire section contains 1068 words.)
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Building on his knowledge of the sea gleaned as a member of the U.S. Navy, a merchant marine seaman, and a yachtsman, Robert Stone in Outerbridge Reach tells an exciting but disturbing story of the challenges of transoceanic yachting, the heights and depths of human daring, the class conflicts beneath democratic façades, and the difficulty of fully understanding the behavior and motivations of others. The book is also a story of betrayal: of self, of family, of personal and corporate dreams.
The novel begins with Owen Browne testing a forty-five-foot Altan Marine sloop and having trouble with failing parts. Such weaknesses, the result of cutting corners and substituting cheap, unreliable materials for solid craftsmanship, will later prove his undoing on the long sea voyage he ultimately undertakes. He is inexperienced and uncomfortable at sea. Nevertheless, when the Hylan Corporation’s head executive mysteriously disappears and therefore will not represent Altan in an around-the-world one-man yacht race, Owen decides to fill the gap, advertise the Altan product, and possibly win the race. Although he is undertaking a foolhardy venture, he convinces himself that this is the only way to regain his lost sense of self, the youthful self-awareness and self-pride of his military days. His wife, a far better sailor than he, doubts his ability to make the stressful voyage but supports his venture in hope that it will help him to regain the vigor and confidence of their early marriage. Superficially a perfect couple, they are estranged and drifting apart. Owen’s humble origins have kept him far more aware of the class distinctions of the yachting crowd than she. The Brownes’ daughter sees her parents’ deception of self and spouse and refuses to bless the farcical voyage, avoiding her father, refusing to see him off, and escaping telephone calls during the voyage—yet weeping for him. Owen, in turn, reveals ineffectiveness with the cabinetmaker and others hired to prepare his boat. Harry Thorne and his colleagues, the behind-the-scene movers considering how to save the sinking parent company, decide that Owen is the only Altan representative worth saving and give his voyage the go-ahead.
Before Owen leaves, he is interviewed and filmed by a mean-spirited, embittered, but clearly talented filmmaker, Ron Strickland, who is hired by Thorne to record the preparation for the voyage, set up cameras for Owen to self-record his adventures, and turn the whole into an advertisement for Altan yachts. Strickland, however, has other film goals. A cynical, professional skeptic whose films destroy their subjects’ pretensions, he sees Owen epitomizing the self-deluding officer class he had earlier satirized in a film about the Vietnam War. He plans to expose the upper-middle-class emptiness of Owen’s family life, social position, and self. The novel alternates between the Brownes and Strickland; the former are led to believe in his objectivity, while conversations between Strickland and his former film subject, Pamela Koestler, a prostitute and drug user, reveal the real, destructive effect of the scenes. Strickland also becomes sexually obsessed with Anne Browne and determined to break through her upper-middle-class façade. While Owen is at sea, Strickland finally seduces and falls in love with her. His love for her and her betrayal of Owen make Strickland see Owen in a new light, and his sense of his film begins to change. She, in turn, feels that she cannot telephone Owen at sea and as a result never speaks to him again, although she works hard to maintain the role of devoted wife.
In the meantime, at sea Owen faces repeated problems (including a lockjaw scare). Yet he falls into the rhythms of the sea and gains confidence and strength. Missionary programs enacting biblical stories, especially ones related to betrayals and concealment, and Morse-code communication with a blind South African adolescent, Mad Max, give Owen human contact. Thoughts of the boy’s darkness make Owen think of the whole world in hiding, concealed and concealing. He and his ship Nona lead the race until furious driving rain and winds off Argentina reveal the internal flaws of his craft: plastic instead of wood and a failing mast. When Owen realizes the dangerous deception of his cherished advertising copy and his inability to complete the voyage because of his faulty ship, he anchors off a small South Atlantic island and goes ashore. The bleached bones of whales and the haunted house of nineteenth century whalers make for an eerily surreal, hallucinatory experience.
By the time Owen renews his journey, he has opted for deception. Because of satellite transmission difficulties, the Nona is no longer trackable, so Owen begins a devious course of misleading reports of distances covered to make those back home think he is still ahead of the race when, in fact, he is almost motionless in the water. He prepares two sets of nautical logs, one truthful, the other a fiction. Yet he realizes that “he could no more take a prize by subterfuge than he could sail to the white port city of his dreams” and that the strange confusions of Vietnam, where truth had been “a trick of the mind that confounded logic,” continue. Employing “instruments of rectitude” such as compass, sextant, and rule to lie, he concludes, would “erode the heart and soul.” He decides that there is no way out, that “there would always be something to conceal.” After a final entry in his log, he steps overboard; as his ship sails on, he drowns.
When his deception and fate are discovered, the world rejects Owen as a cheat. Only Strickland sees into the heart of the matter and understands his basic honesty. This insight drives Strickland to try to make a film to restore Owen’s reputation, but ironically, Anne and her company protectors steal back from him everything he could have used to redeem Owen. Only too late does Anne understand what Strickland could have shown the world: a man doing his best to meet the larger challenges of life but continually defeated, not by a lack of inner drive but by social concealment and deception that encompass everything from his boat to his own wife and daughter. Harry Thorne, the sponsor of Owen’s voyage, one of the few honest men in the company, concludes that his trust has been misplaced. The novel ends with Anne considering making the voyage her husband failed and writing a novel about it.