Before I begin this review, let me first recommend to anyone whom it persuades to read The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor, that after doing so they further benefit themselves by looking again at their copy of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor that I shall, however, quote from extensively. Kurt Brindley’s accomplishment should come into even greater focus when looked at through the lens of the nineteenth century classic novel.
Anyone who has ever experienced the injustice of being condemned by those who characterize their sensitivities in ways fundamentally at odds with their true identity will respond deeply to the travails of Kurt Brindley”s protagonist in The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor. From a tellingly different perspective the same fate befalls Melville’s hero. One cannot help but feel that there is a lot that is autobiographical in Brindley’s narrative in the similar manner of Melville who witnessed much that he described. Both writers display an encyclopedic knowledge of life on board a naval ship and, in Melville’s case, also a whaling vessel as Moby Dick famously shows. In their turn, Brindley and Melville spent many years at sea and they write with authority when it comes to the psychological challenges that arise in the close confines of a ship.
Of comparable length to Billy Budd, Sailor, whose proper literary antecedent it is, Kurt Brindley’s The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor utilizes similar narrative elements but diverges in its treatment of them. It is a dramatic shock to the reader when Brindley has his protagonist fresh from the navy’s boot camp become fixated by the “beauty” of one of his fellow sailors all while trying to find his place in a patently homophobic environment and himself not coming across as anything but a “straight” if extraordinarily self-conscious individual of ungainly physical appearance. He is obviously on dangerous ground from the get-go. Unlike the characterization of Billy Budd as the “Handsome Sailor [who had] no perceptible trace of the vainglorious about him, [but who] rather with the off-hand unaffectedness of natural regality … seemed to accept the spontaneous homage of his shipmates,” Brindley’s unfortunate seaman who suffers the scorn and groundless antipathy often directed toward the socially awkward describes his fellow sailor as “looking like one of those perfect underwear models found in magazines.” The baleful recipient of his attention makes his attitudes blindingly clear to our hero from the very beginning: “If I ever catch you looking at me again, I will fucking destroy you.” Where Billy Budd’s identity is celebrated as one who “might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall,” Brindley’s protagonist boasts no physically admirable attributes and remains nameless but for his humble acceptance of “Boot” as his handle.
A detailed comparison of the two works with their similar themes of the “handsome” or the “beautiful” sailor – Melville uses the epithets interchangeably – can only bring upon the reader feelings of distress at how the present age treats the exceptional among us. In Melville’s time a sailor would be venerated not only for his skills but also for his physical presence while today’s seaman should he be endowed with anything like a mesmerizing appearance will find himself branded as degenerate by the homophobic and the sensitive alike. He will be the aforementioned “underwear model” and his role on board ship will not be to inspire and bring harmony among his shipmates but serve as the ultimate expression of their fears and their hatred of difference. These only serve to warp and ultimately to turn such a figure malevolently toward any perceived slight or misconstrued attraction. An inversion has taken place in Brindley’s present day treatment: protagonist and antagonist – hero and villain – have switched roles.
In Billy Budd the malevolence was isolated:
“Now there can exist no irritating juxtaposition of dissimilar personalities comparable to that which is possible aboard a great war-ship fully manned and at sea. There, every day among all ranks almost every man comes into more or less of contact with almost every other man. Wholly there to avoid even the sight of an aggravating object one must needs give it Jonah’s toss or jump overboard himself. Imagine how all this might eventually operate on some peculiar human creature the direct reverse of a saint?”
The noxious ill-will in The Unfortunate Sailor prevails to the degree that it infects the person of the “beautiful sailor” himself who becomes the instrument for all the focused enmity towards the one who innocently responds to his appealing physical presence. Where the resident evil in the form of envy found in Melville’s narrative is localized to one crew member – “what it was that had first moved him against Billy, namely, his significant personal beauty” – unanimity reins among the rest of the crew as to the perceived blessing of having such a one as Billy Budd among them:
“Close-reefing top-sails in a gale, there he was, astride the weather yard-arm-end, foot in the Flemish horse as ‘stirrup,’ both hands tugging at the ‘earring’ as at a bridle, in very much the attitude of young Alexander curbing the fiery Bucephalus. A superb figure, tossed up as by the horns of Taurus against the thunderous sky, cheerily hallooing to the strenuous file along the spar.”
What the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had viewed as “a virtue … sugaring the sour ones [so that] they took to him like hornets to treacle” has been inverted and transformed into a taboo attraction in today’s navy.
In Brindley’s Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor, a terrible dichotomy has displaced the kind of universal celebration of the human being that permeates Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor. Brindley’s hero possesses all of the moral virtues one could desire but little in terms of the physical attraction that cloaks his fellow “underwear model” sailor who is unable to bear a scant glance his way. The tragedy of Melville’s story points to an evil in the nature of things but one that can be contained and isolated. Brindley exposes it has having escaped and infected much of the body politic. Where Billy Budd is willingly press-ganged from a ship that goes by the name of “The Rights of Man” and his full humanity is valued, in Brindley’s narrative more than two hundred years have passed and these same rights have yet to be codified as universal. Part of the human tragedy is that they need to be in the first place. One finds a modern naval crew divided among itself and the individuals that comprise it shorn of their fullest identity.
Where Melville rewards the reader with the expected richness and literary flourishes of a nineteenth century novelist, Brindley’s spare style is very much of the present time as it gives authentic voice to the various crew members of today’s American naval ship. One finds the pleasure of his writing in its seamlessness and in the sustained manner that he creates the worlds of his sailors’ differing perspectives. At the same time, it is a dramatic order of meditative prose that sustains its lightness of touch when it brings details into focus:
“Her skin was white, so white that it seemed to glow in the dark bar, and looked as soft and smooth as freshly risen cream.”
The immediate triumph of Brindley’s narrative lies in his presentation of those characters who prove unassailable to the enmity of their fellow crew members as they stubbornly and courageously own their differences. As the unfortunate sailor’s new-found mentor proclaims as he goes out – dressed to kill – on shore leave, “I want to look so good that heads turn when I walk by. I want everyone on this planet to want me, to desire me, to think about me when their eyes are closed.” When tragedy persists as it does in this tale, it is never easy to speak of an ultimate triumph although the narrative registers powerfully with the reader. Neither is triumph a word that one would easily apply to Billy Budd, Sailor, whose innocent hero despite universal affection succumbs to an envious enemy and to the harsh dictates of war. In both Melville and Brindley, however, one can speak of their respective achievement when it comes to a sensitive empathy for what is most vulnerable in human sensibility and that is subject to the darkest violations when conditions allow it.
In his naval career, Brindley’s must have been a compassionate presence among the kind of attitudes that threaten the vulnerable in society. His is ultimately a work of caring and understanding whose confident voice never declaims but informs about the emotional devastations that take place in those who must navigate unwarranted hatred from their peers. That The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor advances Melville’s narrative to today’s conditions is its further achievement.