The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor by Kurt Brindley

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The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor by Kurt Brindley

Review by Paul Xylinides

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Kurt Brindley joins forces with Herman Melville

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.

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Johanna’s Revenge by Connie Cliff

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Johanna’s Revenge by Connie Cliff

Review by Paul Xylinides

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What this Girl Does to Win her Man!

A short story deserves at least a short review, but this one may grow in length:

“She was one of those few women who were strikingly beautiful, even when she just woke up in the morning. One couldn’t pinpoint her ethnicity. She had long dark wavy hair, enigmatic almond shaped eyes the colour of warm honey, and smooth pore-less olive skin.”

A good start. Ms. Connie Cliff can write clean, accessible lines with a pleasing flow. That would seem to say it sufficiently for the quality of the writing whose tightness, indeed its narrow compass appears to be the strategy of today’s young, female erotic writer.

“He had a deep sexy voice, beautiful green eyes, and an enormous penis.”

Okay, hold it right there! We do have the Oxford comma, which is good, but have all the ladies been lying? Does the male organ always have to be “enormous,” or “scimitar-like?” Can’t it be “skillful” or “inquisitive?” Can’t it be an instrument that – like the writer’s pen – tells a story instead of knocking down the trees to make the paper to print the x-rated book?

“[A]fter a few too many drinks … [he was] squeezing her breast.”

– Without a by-your-leave issuing from the super-rich lout and sans recrimination on the part of the stewardess serving drinks in the first class compartment above the clouds! At the very least, this reviewer – a member of the human race and advocate of sensitive procedure before intimacy of whatever acrobatic kind – would argue for a modicum of agreement and consent however much it might strain the writer’s imagination to produce.

It need hardly be said that the story’s sexual heroine allows her seducer – the one who locks her up, that is – or rather his enormous organ to have its way with her.

“They fell asleep in each other’s arms.”

Sweet! After what this couple did, a shower before bedtime would at the very least have been in order. Of course, in some circles a lack of hygiene is de rigueur while in others it is apt to bring on de rigor mortis.

“[H]e pounded her in every imaginable position, then … her ass, then came all over her breasts.”

To cap it all off, however, “she tingled when she remembered [it]!” This reader would think it more plausible if she were to take herself to therapy suffering from post-traumatic sex disorder.

Along these lines, it might be apropos to suggest, dear writer, that a synonym or some other means of expression in place of the word “pound” might be serviceable for the reader’s better experience. Half-a-dozen times in a twenty-odd page story is half-a-dozen times too many. People who can read are not looking for something, anything to pound.

Oh dear, now the afore-mentioned instrument is “massive.”

In the end, and in more ways than one, our airline stewardess does become rather a smut object – servicing two men together with full repertoire (let us leave it to the imagination or, failing that, do purchase the book!) and an even greater neglected mess ensuing – all for the fulfillment of her master plan which is to make jealous and regain the favours of the one man she would far prefer to have inside her. A most interesting concept – where some ladies sleep their way to the top, this one uses the same tried and apparently workable method in a matter of the heart. Who knew! It seems an enterprising young lady does know and further, having won her man, sees no reason to lose her extra fun on the side. Winner takes all! It looks as though Ms. Connie Cliff’s promises of seduction have no end in sight.

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The Humanitarian by N Caraway

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The Humanitarian by N Caraway

Review by Paul Xylinides

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A Remarkable Work That Speaks Directly to Our Despair

How do the powers that be bring aid to displaced and starving people spread over a vast continent? The answer is in ways that don’t meet their true needs because these have long been either erased by or made irrelevant to the imperial incursions, power grabs, and internecine intrigues that go hand in hand with the delivery of the aid itself. The immediate merit of N. Caraway’s The Humanitarian is that it doesn’t dwell upon the depredations that are in play and that any informed reader will bring to the book. The horrors that continue on the African continent are well known and provide for much of our daily news consumption. As of his last writing, one of the locales remains a United Nations no-go zone.

Instead, it is the internal monologue of the existentially conflicted aid worker who is allowed one final field operation that conveys the lasting damage to the human spirit, damage that is so fundamental as to make Richards despair before the impossibility of establishing anything for those who are suffering commensurate with what they have lost:

“We’re pretty good at keeping them all alive nowadays, but we’re keeping them alive so that they can live in shanty towns. … [T]he model can only deliver its promise by turning people into numbers …”

However much he is “driven by the need to find what lay at the heart of [his] world of suffering, in order to justify … the planes, the tents, the food, the missions and the money,” when he does find it in all of its simplicity and beauty it is little more than a pathetic and limited vision of a lost and irretrievable world:

“We reached the dancers and stood and watched for awhile. There was nothing here but energy and sweat and the rhythmic clapping. It had no beginning or end, no shape other than the endlessly repeated upward thrusting into the night sky.”

His appointed task, however, has never been to understand and preserve what gives meaning to the lives of these people. He is to number them and to evaluate their nutritional needs so that they can be moved from place to place where they will receive their consigned air-drops of aid. The imperatives of the bureaucrats and those of the ones who do the exterminating of the people and the ravaging of the lands issue from a similar disconnection although their interests will merge and intermingle as each pursues its ends in the same territory.

His disillusionment and despair find Caraway’s protagonist in the position of being a cipher himself. His very awareness of how limited and marginal in effect is the aid that can be delivered makes it impossible for him to enter into the lives of those he is trying to help. Whatever his internal struggles and the operations he undertakes, he can find no correspondence within himself to what the people before him are undergoing and he forever remains outside their world that he can only view as lost and beyond recovery.

“I simply felt sad and aware that I was not going to help the woman or her people. I would never even know how far she had come from and how long it had taken her to get to the bare patch of ground under the mango trees.”

It is noteworthy that the writing of The Humanitarian is sufficiently absorbing that the reader can wait until some three-quarters into the story for a real rise in narrative tension that culminates in a final and heightened crescendo of existential drama and exposed interests. Up until this point, a gradual acclimatization has unfolded such that one feels very much the experience of Caraway’s protagonist who despite a lengthy career in the field is unable to identify with the eviscerated world that he had chosen for his life’s work. Unable to step outside protected and managed zones, he records its needs as stipulated by the bureaucracy that is far removed and busy with fitting the dispossessed to its plan rather than its plan to them.

That the story unfolds through means of Richards’s internal monologue effectively allows for correspondences between the state of being of the protagonist and of the world he confronts. It is the small epiphanies of life – themselves impoverished – that remain to give what meaning they can and to lead him on:

“[D]oves cooed in the trees of the compound, their call a liquid bubbling that tailed off like a coin vibrating to a stop on a wooden table top.”

“[T]he only way to resist this dark suction into the abyss is to get up abruptly and confront the world of tangible objects.”

“I had come in order to go for a walk in the bush, to be part of that other place, to feel the sun and gaze at the shimmering landscape, to smell the smoke of the fire and hear the frogs in the night and the drums at dawn and the high treble voices of the boys singing at the start of their school day in the schools without books. I had come because there was nowhere else I could go and I was as restless as I was tired.”

For all the goods that the aid worker can supply, it is an isolated missionary priest’s spiritual values that find a respondent chord in the impoverished people. Although he has little materially to offer, they reach out to him as one of their own and as one above them. Try as he might, Richards, the humanitarian worker, is unable to experience the transcendence that ordinary and respectful, everyday existence in itself can bring:

“Here in the misery and helplessness of this small, forgotten community the priest had found the need he could respond to, the answer to the question he had borne, the beloved for his love. But for me there was just dirt and sweat.”

The sweep of the tragedy that human action estranged from compassion and empathy can engender, however, is complete:

“Nothing was very permanent out here in the range lands and the toic, not even the hold a man might have on reality or perhaps even on things more precious still.”

This remarkable work by N. Caraway speaks directly to our times in its despair for what has been lost. Too often has humanity gone where its values are unable to survive. All of us bear responsibility as long as we refuse to withhold support for what our representatives choose to do or we turn away when we can further inform ourselves and so have a voice when the time comes to express ourselves.

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