Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Navigator of New York: a very short review

Is polar exploration a metaphor? This is, among other things, a question that is posed by Wayne Johnston's The Navigator of New York.

I'm a sucker for books about the Great North, an appetite that is often easily fed by hand-me-downs from my parents, who have a particular fondness for Canadian writers.

So I've wandered through a number of such books in recent years, such as The North Water and The Orenda.

The Navigator of New York is certainly a worthy entrant in whatever category this is, although in the end I found I didn't quite know what to do with it. It's historical fiction, re-telling the bizarre-but-intriguing story of the controversy around Robert Peary and Frederick Cook and who discovered the North Pole first.

Part of the problem is that I don't really care who discovered the North Pole first.

Part of the problem is that both Peary and Cook were, apparently, jerks; certainly they are both quite unappealing in The Navigator of New York

There are some very appealing parts of The Navigator of New York, most particularly the early parts of the book, when our "hero", Devlin Stead, is talking about his early life in St. John's Newfoundland.

We lived on the edge of civilization. North of St. John's there were settlements with names, but you could not call them towns. St John's was on the edge of a frontier that had not changed since it was fixed four hundred years ago. I imagined what it looked like from the sea, the last light on the coast as you went north, the last one worth investigating anyway. The forest behind the outlying houses was as dense as the forest in the core. In the woods between neighbourhoods, men set snares for rabbits, hunted birds with rifles within a hundred feet of schoolyards. Not outside the city but at some impossible-to-pinpoint place inside it, civilization left off and wilderness began.

But all too soon, via a plot device that is perhaps crucial but which I found tremendously distracting, Devlin is gone from St. John's, off on a voyage of exploration of his own, to New York City, where he tries to understand how he came to arise from that tremendous melting pot of American growth.

Looking out around the barrier, I saw that steerage passengers were disembarking over several gangplanks onto ferries that bore the name of Ellis Island. Some passengers, who seemed to think that they were being turned away from America, tried to resist, sobbing and protesting as they were dragged along by implacable officials who, I guessed, were well used to such behavior.

I knew that you could be refused admittance to America at Ellis Island if you showed signs of mental instability, an X scrawled in chalk on your shoulder or your back. My mother, had she travelled to America in steerage, might not have been admitted.

But, at odds with the book's title, The Navigator of New York has only a passing interest with New York, and even less of an interest with Newfoundland; it is all about polar exploration, and so we're off, for many hundreds of pages, to Greenland, to Ellesmere Island, to Baffin Bay, and to points beyond.

I guess it's all very well and good if you're really interested in polar exploration, and find it a hoot to imagine an alternate telling of the Peary/Cook story in which Cook is the character of most interest.

Or perhaps it is, as I suggested initially, a metaphor of some sort? (Though what sort of metaphor, I'm not sure. Something Oedipaen, perhaps?)

I can't say the The Navigator of New York is a bad book, but I sure found it odd.

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