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By the Dock of the Bay

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Francisco Goldman's sailors never get to leave their port

By Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor

WATERFRONTS have always been my great fascination. I used to wander the Oakland docks when I was still a teenager, thinking that somewhere on these stenched piers where the lip of the land meets the water's salt mouth there was either some great adventure awaiting or some great truth to be found.

I wanted to follow Jack London and find my writing voice in the belly of an ocean-bound ship. I wanted to steer by the Southern Cross, feel the breath of the trade winds on my bare back, hold the wheel against the wild storms that rip along the Cape Horn passage. Eventually I found my ships--cleaned out oil tankers along the great river in Baton Rouge and unpacked banana boats in Charleston--but I never made a sailor because, to my regret, I never sailed out of port.

Which is why, I think, I was attracted to the sadly ironic The Ordinary Seaman, Francisco Goldman's novel about 15 Central American would-be sailors stranded on an unsailable ship at an abandoned Brooklyn dock. But it was Goldman's great depth of field--drawing on stories from one end of the world to the other--along with his extraordinary descriptive and storytelling abilities, that held me enthralled.

The novel's protagonist is Esteban, a 19-year-old Sandinista veteran who hopes that by leaving his native Nicaragua, he will also be able to leave behind his images of Marta, his lover, who was killed in one of the last great contra offensives. He cannot--her memory follows him throughout the story:

    In a pasture just outside the town he sat with la Marta in his arms under a fruitless papaya tree, leaves like big green floppy ox ears. Rotting jocotes fermented in the grass under other trees, drawing wasps. Now and then an aguacate leadenly plummeted from a high branch in its towering tree, crashing through lower ones with almost the same sound a falling mortar shell can make before it hits and explodes. When she jumped inside his embrace, turning to clutch at him, he saw the sweaty strand of hair stuck to her cheek under her panicked wild stallion's eye and he felt so in love.

Esteban and his fellow "sailors" (only one of whom has ever been to sea) have the bad fortune to sign on to a derelict ship, the Urus, whose fire-gutted engine room and electronics system resist repair. Most of them go into debt to book passage on flights from Central America to New York, only to discover they will receive no pay until the ship is ready to take to sea. It never is, of course.

Meanwhile, the crewmen's visas have run out, making them illegals any time they set foot on shore. They also discover another danger offship: the local docks and the nearby housing projects are infested with gangs. The crewmen are trapped, reduced to long hours of fruitless repair work and longer hours of idle time telling stories of their lives back home. Their stories and their private, night-triggered memories (along with Esteban's furtive wanderings to find extra food that eventually lead him into Brooklyn's Spanish-speaking community) make up the bulk of this beautifully written, wonderfully interwoven book:

    Elsewhere on board that night as every night, in every dark and silent cabin, desire rummages obsessively through the same old trunk, digs at memory with a dog's frantic claws. Roving hands and minds grope behind, between, above, below, coming up with mute dolls missing faces and limbs, handfuls of air, until all that's left is the empty bottom of this trunk where you get to see yourself coming home after your glorious time at sea, penniless, still in debt, and will she still be waiting and what will she think of me then? The dog digs deeper, more and more frantically.

GOLDMAN MIGHT have left it there, with the abandoned crew, but his imagination seems to have gotten the best of him. He wonders what kind of owners could possibly abandon these men, and in the middle of the book, the focus shifts to the stories of the owners themselves.

The writer follows these two former yuppie college classmates through barren marriages and unsuccessful financial schemes toward a final throw of the dice until you begin to understand, if not sympathize with, the class-based callousness that allows them to leave a crew of men rotting on a forgotten deck. Goldman's ability to look at the puzzle from more than one side without appearing gratuitous is one reason he is a step above the usual writing crowd.

There are flaws in The Ordinary Seaman, of course. Goldman has that annoying habit of introducing all of his characters virtually at once, as if he is worried that he will forget one or two of them if he doesn't get them on paper right away. Because of this, of the 16 crewmen of the Urus, only three or four actually stand out as individual characters.

The rest are sort of a composite blur, and after a while, I lost the urge to try to sort them out. In addition, the story peters out at the end as if, like the Urus, it finally discovers that it really, after all, has no place to go. But perhaps that's Goldman's point, and we should simply enjoy the ride without worrying about the final destination.

Goldman's publicists compare his writing to that of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, but what modern Latinocentric writer doesn't get such a comparison these days? There is no magic realism here, though, only sweat-gritty reality. Instead, Francisco Goldman reminds me more of Umberto Eco, drawing the reader through so many worlds that you wonder how he possibly could know so much.

The Ordinary Seaman, by Francisco Goldman; Atlantic Monthly Press; 388 pages; $23 cloth.

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From the July 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro.

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