Robert Stone’s Outerbridge Reach is a magnificent book. And magnificent—with its roots in magnus, great, and facere, to make—is just the right word, le mot juste.
This novel is large and ambitious and although there is a point in the story at which the tension—that tautness in the long line that has been pulling the reader along from the very beginning—slackens a bit, and the reader is asked to accept one single almost cliché but largely inevitable development in the narrative, the story is otherwise almost flawless.
The first thing that impressed me was Stone’s command of the nautical idiom, not only the vocabulary, both nouns and verbs, for all those sailing and boat terms—auxiliary, mainsail, genoa, way point, sloop, swells, running lights, companionway ladder, rig, lifeline, unreef, hatch, the sea slight, wallow, bilge pump, back-siphon, seacock; and all of this within the first two pages—but the way Stone managed and applied this language to the many tasks of his narrative.
Accompanying this skill and accomplishment—and growing on me impressively as both reader and writer—were Stone’s command of both dialogue and character generally. And more specifically some truly marvelous juxtapositioning of observational lines for the most revealing and effective of psychological insights.
Strickland, the jaded film maker, for example had always wanted to make a film about just one person. Thinking of the starlet of a film he had made about the Manhattan underlife he muses:
With her…it would be a knotty work. How to penetrate that busy swarm of verbiage and gesture and find the shiny animal within? How to bring it stunned and dripping into light? But what a worthy lesson for the world to glimpse what thrived in the airless inner life of just one particular whore. It would be every bit as striking as your pet cemetery films. There would be the same uneasiness at what teemed there, under the crust.
Or at the beginning of the reader’s understanding of the marital stalemate and general malaise that Owen and Anne have accepted and almost come to terms with, a fundamental dis-ease with their lives and coexistence that has led her to drink and will lead him to solitude and death at sea, we are told of the origin of their love, from her point of view:
Years before, in a different world, they had met on the island…They had started dating the summer after plebe year and the ferry figured in their courtship…They had spent whole crossings necking on the same gearbox, starboard aft.
Now side by side, not touching, they seemed to be avoiding each other’s eye…For a moment she felt the remnants of that breathless romance strewn about her, demystified and ironical with time, exposed to the gray rain.
Later, when Stone starts setting us up for the inevitable affair with Strickland—the artist-at-all-costs—who begins to fall under Anne’s spell (which is probably as much a consequence of his narcissism and the film he has been hired to make as it is of her slightly faded charms) Strickland watches Anne at a party, flirting with another man.
Her presence made him feel irritable and frustrated; he had to consciously resist looking at her all the time. It was not usual for him to be reticent with women. Generally, he was happy to let them notice his attention and figure things out for themselves.
But later that same night, once he’s alone with Anne in a chauffeured car, “Strickland felt that she was wary of him.”
He regretted coming along now and being at such close quarters with her and so outside her life. He was taken with the thought that he might never, ever get any closer. The thought made him feel both lonely and angry.
That sense of simultaneous loneliness and anger, or Owen Browne’s own sense of estrangement from his wife and daughter as he climbs the stairs in the familiar house—“Things had a peculiar novelty that was both invigorating and unsettling”—might seem contradictory to some readers; but instead the paired emotions reported by the narrator conjure up a more complex and nuanced and therefore more visceral and true emotion that is easy for me at least to recognize and identify with as not only convincing but real.
In the space of a limited impression-piece I can’t do this novel justice. Robert Stone is a strong sure writer and just going through the book again and looking up the citations I also see the way he has so carefully and thoroughly layered in the supporting threads of narrative: Anne was probably a more capable sailor than Owen could ever hope to become; her father was a bastard who made his wealth by being ruthless, and though she doesn’t like him she will need him and his thugs in the end; the way Owen’s own father always complained about some unjust accusation that had sullied his honor; or the way that some of the best of the relationship between Anne and Owen dated back to the Vietnam War, when he was thousands of miles away from her and both of them were able to believe in themselves and their love for one another more easily, given the distance and the continual threat they lived under.
Once Owen sets sail on his doomed craft in a race he doesn’t really care about winning I felt as if Stone had written himself into a corner. I think this happens sometimes, while we work on stories that present such wonderful potential and excite us so much as writers and yet, sometimes, the place where the story wants and needs to go can become problematic.
In this case Owen alone at sea with only the well-established portent of the shabbily constructed craft and his lonesome thoughts sets up a narrative situation in which—until that negligent craftsmanship begins to actively threaten Browne—we are left with the dilemma of a single player standing alone on the stage. The pattern of the alternating chapters depicting Browne and Anne vs. Strickland and then, once Browne sets sail, Anne and Strickland vs. Browne obliges Stone to keep returning to the man in the boat, even if the chapters are necessarily briefer now.
But what can we watch him do? Or say? Or even think? Unlike Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea Browne is too much alone on the Nona, and doesn’t even have the fish he is fighting as antagonist, and someone he can talk to in ways that are dramatically effective. So that is one problem.
The other—and I think this is why the book didn’t win a major prize—is that Stone early on suggested and prepared the reader for the almost inevitable bedding of Anne by this very strange man Strickland. Though we have been prepared for this outcome, it feels to me a little too stereotypical: Anne obviously loves Browne a great deal but the marriage has run dry; Strickland is simultaneously presented as a very weird creature, almost misanthropic, and yet he easily finds women who want to sleep with him (the tiresome male fantasy); but Anne is not only alcoholic but deeply lonely, and therefore easy prey to Strickland whose motives for sleeping with her are conflicted.
That much though I can accept because the portrayal of Strickland as something of a die-for-his-art predator willing to take advantage of anyone and always looking for the means of doing this, despite his belated empathy for Browne, both the man and his perilous mission, is convincing enough. Strickland’s almost nihilistic ambivalence is something I can accept and relate to in a character. Browne’s character is obviously more solid, and even Anne comes across as believable in every way. Until she declares her love for Strickland, soon after they start fucking: “I do love you, you know.”
By this time we have passed through the inflection point of the novel, the point at which Browne enters the storm and discovers that his craft is being ripped apart as a result of the shortcuts the Korean manufacturers took and Strickland and Anne are simultaneously acting upon their pent-up desire for one another. For the space of several short chapters the book could barely hold my interest.
Once Browne sets out on his ill-conceived voyage to circle the earth in a race we never expect him to win there are only a couple of possibilities: he dies at sea, or stranded on some island, or he returns, eventually, to a life that was not made any better by his foolhardiness and stubborn determination to do something he had no business doing in the first place (or so we think). Or perhaps there is a third option: he really does discover that thing about himself that he set out to find and no matter what happens to his body he is vindicated with a strengthened soul?
After the lag in the drama, while Browne decides what to do, Stone takes command of his narrative once again. The novel finishes well and the last quarter or eighth of the book has the same power as everything leading up to that inflection point I mentioned.
And once again we have Stone’s remarkable observational prose, revealing of both surface and depth at the same time:
He let her gentle and flatter him into making love. Wanting to satisfy him, she applied herself. She could feel him trying to excel, to impress her and bind her to him. Her own pleasure made her feel affectionate and uncritical, almost hopeful that they might somehow go on. But in the dark she knew better.
Robert Stone seems to be one of those writers who learned to write by actively living and loving in the real hard true world, where every apparent contradiction points to a fundamental axiom of being. The sort of writer I love to read.
Image by Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=518022