(Overlook Press) $26.95
Four men meet on a merchant ship in 1914. The ship is rammed by a passenger liner. Each man falls from the sinking wreck into war-confused Prussia, wandering. Some of the men meet again. One of them meets the wealthy owner of the ship, a dandy. This, more or less, is the story of The Yellow Sailor, but don't think for a moment that the book doesn't go out on a limb. With thrumming narrative rhythm, the novel offers us a raw, wretched, and erotic side of life not often depicted in official culture or the polite books on Oprah's list.
Not really about World War I, and not wholly about its four main characters either, The Yellow Sailor--which is written by Vancouver B.C. author Steven Weiner--dispenses with conventions like detailed plot and characters who "grow" and instead supplies the reader with a rich, disturbing vision of the world both as it existed in the previous century and, by extrapolation, as it is now. Absent is the kind of transparent historical reportage you might expect of a novel set during wartime (cf. The Good Soldier). Instead, The Yellow Sailor (the name of the ship where the main characters, Karl, Alois, Nicholas, and Jacek, meet) offers innumerable Bosch-like details of the desperate lives of poor folk during wartime, and their oddities and perversions. The book's details accrue to more than the sum of it parts; glossy, freakish cameo characters jump out of the work, then disappear into its roiling surface.
The fact that a contemporary Western author chooses to set his work in hardscrabble rural Ukrainian and Bavarian villages, industrial German cities, and Polish shtetls is interesting and disjointing in itself. Somewhere in the lines of this book's gritty imagery, Weiner seems to be telling us that no matter how much money we have or what era we live in, desperation is the basic state of affairs; our culture's weird entrepreneurial landscape of shopping malls and jolly-rolling sports vehicles does not exempt us from this desperation at all.
Weiner, who wrote the painful and dark-textured The Museum of Love (1995), takes the dark WWI period and sets it behind his characters like a thick scrim. With the Great War's gore-sticky impact affecting each paragraph, he jaggedly traces the characters' movements, though there is little sense to their wanderings. The four men are neither noble heroes nor victimized underdogs: Each meets ignorance, violence, intimacy in the world and responds clumsily, sometimes stupidly, sometimes understandably. Conversations are soaked in a liquor of dark theatricality and erotic energy. Men are crowded tableside, mingling with coarse laughter, jokes, odorous food, and sensuality:
Poles, Belgians, Mecklenburgers, Pomeranians, Silesians, spoke mix-German. White-slave transporters looked for factory girls. A composer from the Great Fleet strolled drunkenly into posts.... Austrian schillings, English pounds, rubles, guilders, kronen, reischsmarks, and Belgian francs circulated.
"To the Kaiser!"
The Dach brothers drank. They put their arms around each other. They sang.
It would be ridiculously reductive to call The Yellow Sailor "gay fiction," but, like The Museum of Love, its themes hover around male-male bonds. The fact that Weiner usually depicts this desire from oblique angles (except for one brief scene, and the scenes involving the wealthy and openly gay ship-owner, Julius Bernai), is interesting and complicated, echoing the mute way that the characters apprehend their own desires. And like the world depicted here, the characters' desires are volatile and inconstant in general (Bernai winds up stricken with love for a woman; a Polish boy murders the young girl he woos, drags her coffin through the mountains, then joins the military).
Like much good fiction, The Yellow Sailor is cruel. I certainly would avoid reading it while hunkering down to a meal of rotini and sauce. Instead, read it in one long, fitful draught before bedtime; its pungent imagery will linger in your mind for a long time.