Themes and Meanings
Outerbridge Reach is the story of a man staking his and his family’s fate on a single decision that will either make or break him, pitting himself against the sea, society, and self, pushing himself to his limits—and failing. In the tradition of Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, and Ernest Hemingway, Owen’s battle against the sea represents all of humankind’s challenges. In the harsh geometry involved, the sea, sky, and sailor form a triangle, with other concerns completely removed, all emphasis being placed on the ethics of winning and losing. Ultimately, Anne’s final musings make clear the symbolism of the voyage: “The ocean encompassed everything, and everything could be understood in terms of it. Everything true about it was true about life in general.” Within this tradition, Owen is the believer, the idealist shattered by the harsh discovery of emptiness and delusion. One of the final entries in his diary is from Melville’s Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851): “Be true to the dreams of your youth.”
Like Robert Stone’s other novels, Outerbridge Reach questions the cost of pursuing the American Dream: Success turns to ashes, lives disintegrate, and nightmares come true. It is a story of failures of responsibility, of loyalties challenged and betrayed, of human weakness and limitation, the shattering of “lovely illusions.” As such, it is meant to be a portrait of its time, an exploration of the deceptions and self-deceptions in the service of success that are commonplace in society, the workplace, and even the home. Owen’s father taught him the importance of concealment and lies, a lesson with which he was never really comfortable. His Vietnam experiences were exercises in misleading statistics and lying as a mathematical art. His experience in the Hylan Corporation is with the illusions of advertising, illusions accepted so wholeheartedly that he believes them himself, staking his life and future on them, only to be faced with the fact that the beautiful ships he has praised in such glowing terms lacked the craftsmanship to endure. The deceptions are reinforced by the mysterious disappearance of the corporate head and the failure of the company in the wake of shady dealings and financial scandal. The love of his life fails him in his time of need, betrays him with another man, and ultimately founds her success on his failure. She asks her daughter not to judge Owen harshly, since few men ever test themselves the way he did, but even this is a lie of sorts. The story ends with cover-ups, deceptions, and self-delusions.
Mad Max, the blind shortwave fanatic tapping away to unknown listeners in Morse code, epitomizes the human condition—hopeful, optimistic, yet limited and somehow doomed. Blindness about motive and reason is quintessential Stone.
(The entire section is 1,254 words.)