- By Jeffrey Ford
- William Morrow
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by David Raney
- September 1, 2019
Turns out, the mad captain of the Pequod didn’t go down with the ship after all...
If you’re reading this, chances are you either read Moby-Dick in college or it’s on the Hall of Shame list of things you really ought to read sometime, and definitely will just as soon as you finish the seven books on your nightstand. If you ask me (and you didn’t), you might still want to scan the horizon for Moby, but you should add Ahab’s Return to that bedside stack.
Jeffrey Ford is a bit hard to categorize as a writer, and might I heretically suggest it’s unnecessary? The author of more than a dozen novels and story collections, he’s won multiple World Fantasy Awards, but also the Edgar Award (for The Girl in the Glass), the Shirley Jackson Award for best short-story collection (A Natural History of Hell), the Nebula, and others.
Ford knows how to tell a story, whatever the genre, and how to get out of its way and when to stop, and here that makes for a great few hours between the covers.
Ahab’s Return has a lot of company in turning classic literature over in the light, finding new glints and gleams and entry points. This can turn to parody, of course, and something as famous as Moby-Dick has attracted plenty of pop-culture pastiche, with redoubtable Ahab avatars like Woody Woodpecker, the Flintstones, or Rocky and Bullwinkle taking on Moby stand-ins — in the latter case, “Maybe Dick, the Wailing Whale.”
Versions higher up the cultural ladder include Ray Bradbury’s Leviathan ’99 and, more recently, Railsea, by the improbably named China Miéville, which reimagines the ocean as a railroad and Ahab’s quarry as a giant mole. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours likewise reshaped Mrs. Dalloway, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres did the same for King Lear, and Bridget Jones’s Diary, for that matter, is an update of Pride and Prejudice with its own Mister (Mark) Darcy.
But Ahab’s Return isn’t so much a rewrite of Moby-Dick as a kind of alternate history, posing the question: What if Ahab didn’t go down with the ship (or the fish), caught in a harpoon line and dragged to his death? What if Ishmael, writing for the 1853 equivalent of a supermarket tabloid, made that up? And what happens when Ahab comes to town looking for revenge, the truth, and his wife and son?
Our narrator is George Harrow, another ink-stained wretch dealing in “confabulation and hokum” whose work his editor describes as “ploughing through the truth, harvesting a rich crop of whim-wham” under the motto “Ignorance is the handmaiden of Wonder.” One windy night, Ahab flings open his office door in an entrance worth quoting:
"He stood in the dim light of the entranceway. His beard, his glare, his stillness put me off. He exuded a sense of tension, a spring about to snap, and stared at me imperiously as if I had intruded upon him. I could tell from his peacoat and his broadfall breeches that he was a man of the sea. Noting his silk top hat and overall countenance — the stern glare of one who seemed used to giving orders — I surmised he was more than a common sailor. He had his seabag over his shoulder and a boarding ax gripped in his right hand. Only when he shifted position and tapped the floor did I notice that his left pant leg had been cut back and the appendage had been replaced with an artificial limb made of what appeared to be whalebone. I controlled my fear and, as nonchalantly as possible, said, 'Can I help you?'”
Harrow agrees to finance Ahab’s last quest in return for exclusive stories along the way. He can’t know, and neither can the reader, what a wild ride lies ahead. For “a fellow who wrote exclusively about the strange,” George reflects at one point, “Fate seemed to have stepped in and shouted, I’ll show you strange.”
Along the way, we learn a good deal about the New York of 1853, not by shoehorned-in facts and footnotes but by gritty description of the alleyways and denizens of “one of the more miserable patches of God’s earth,” as well as their opposites, the John Jacob Astors of the world.
This is a New York you can see and smell, and you’ll encounter not just George and Ahab but vicious street gangs, coach chases, mysterious knife-throwing ladies, ambushes, opium lords, a loathsome — possibly inhuman — adversary known as the Pale King Toad, ghost ships, zombie assassins, and something called the manticore, about which the less said (and dreamt) the better.
There is a subtle emphasis here on how stories get written and why — not with postmodern purpose but to ask why they matter to us, and why fact and fable so often share the same book or body. As Ahab snarls at Ishmael, “I survived. It is your blasted book that makes a spirit of me. Your words have become a truth beyond truth.”
In a calmer moment, George remarks to Ahab, “You see, that story has meaning; a certain truth. Something swims in its depths.” He later asks the old seafarer, “Do you not know the book and the world are separate voyages?”
Sign on for this one; it’s well worth the trip.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2018.]
David Raney is a writer and editor in Atlanta.