Call him Ishmael. If you do, you’ll get an earful about whales (at least as much as anyone knew in 1851), whaling, and wind sailing in its waning days as a viable means of commercial sea-faring. Herman Melville’s classic novel about a mad captain’s obsession with the albino sperm whale who bit off his leg is equal parts travelogue, treatise on whales and whaling, and adventure story. Much of the story is exposition, Melville, through an older Ishmael, pontificating on what is known about these huge creatures, how and why they are hunted, and the history of whaling. Yes, the image of Jonah in the belly of the whale comes up often. A quick search of the Internet yields some reliable evidence that the prophet may actually have spent a day or two in a sperm whale’s gut, but that the rabbi who wrote it down neglected to mention Jonah probably emerged on the shoreline bleached white and likely half-crazed. (Explains how he got the attention of the king of Nineveh and Jonah’s subsequent temper tantrum when God didn’t get all Old Testament on the city.) I digress.
The action of the story, about 600 pages in the version I read, actually only takes up about a third of the book. Ishmael, who mostly exists as a narrator once he’s on the Pequod, is a restless youth from New York who, rather than turn to a life of crime when he’s broke and bored, goes to sea. He has already been a merchant marine, but whalers don’t really cotton to that type of seaman. It’s implied in several places that they don’t respect those who serve on those new-fangled steamship contraptions now plying the oceans.
Ishmael befriends a New Zealand cannibal named Quequeg, who left his homeland years ago to become a skilled harpooner. Signing on, Ishmael and Quequeg don’t even see their captain for a couple of days after they’ve left port. Everything is handled by Starbuck, the moody Quaker first mate. When Captain Ahab finally appears, we discover he’s one peg shy of a leg. Ahab has no intention of meeting the ship’s owners’ quotas for whale oil. He’s still recovering from an attack by an albino sperm whale in the Sea of Japan. Named “Moby Dick” by those who’ve seen it, Ahab wants it hauled aboard and boiled down to lamp oil. And he doesn’t care who gets killed in the process..
Interestingly enough, we see a lot of whaling in action, horrific to those of us who have grown up in the Save the Whales era, but fascinating nonetheless. Whaling was the predecessor to the petroleum industry, and sperm whales were highly prized for their oil. But Moby Dick does not appear until the last 75 pages of the book. When he does, it’s a complete disaster for Ahab and his crew. One wonders why the crew did not mutiny save for the loyal, but fatalistic, Starbuck.
Melville’s style is hard to get through for a modern reader. One has to remember that Melville was writing for an audience who had no Internet, no television, no radio, no movies. Many of his audience had never seen the ocean, and indeed, references are made to the Midwest and California. But while Melville wrote about his former profession with a reverence some might save for philosphy or religion (or lack thereof), he also managed to write one of the early thrillers. Had Moby Dick been written today – Well, it’d read more like Tom Clancy than Melville. Or maybe Clive Cussler – Ishmael’s description of how he survived would not be the end. It would be the hook for a sequel.