Log of the S.S. the Mrs. Unguentine
Dalkey Archive Press: 114 pp., $12.95 paper
ORIGINALLY published in 1972, Stanley Crawford's allegorical novel "Log of the S.S. the Mrs. Unguentine" has been in and out of print for years. Newly reissued after much time adrift, the book is long overdue for a heroic homecoming.
The novel is written in the form of a ship's log, albeit one bereft of dates, times or coordinates. Rather than hard facts, we are presented with the 40-year history of the Unguentine marriage as the couple roams the seven seas aboard a garbage barge. At the start, Mrs. Unguentine reveals that her alcoholic husband has committed suicide by taking a one-way trip to Davy Jones' locker with a "bottle clutched to his lips."
Information is presented in short, terse paragraphs that become increasingly expansive as Mrs. Unguentine mulls over her marriage. There's not much to say at first. Then a few complaints. (She wants a baby. He drinks too much.) Ultimately, the narrative blossoms into long, urgent paragraphs that stretch for pages. Imagine Donald Barthelme sending messages in a bottle to Gertrude Stein. "The seas, the seas," she laments, "how I hated them then, and all their waters which glided us from chicanery to chicanery and in our wake, our youth, oil smears iridescent of all that might have been; but never was, never will be."
The plot is straightforward, but it's not always clear what's happening or, for that matter, where in the timeline things take place. It's not a matter of whether Mrs. Unguentine's narration is unreliable, but to what degree.
First, there's the matter of the barge, which, under her husband's maniacally capable direction, becomes a veritable Garden of Eden replete with "forty trees with an inner circle of evergreens, cool, dark, unchanging, and surrounded by a flowing ring of deciduous trees." In addition to this floating forest, there are vegetable gardens, a menagerie and a "strange body of water which swelled and shrank in size according to some principle I never grasped." With Herculean determination, Unguentine wills this wonderland into being and disappears into it. Each of the 40 trees is given a woman's name, and he spends his days concealed in the privacy of their boughs.
When he tires of the garden, Unguentine covers it with an enormous dome fashioned of high-impact glass, turning their island of plenty into a "silent, dark, aquarium." Ever restless, he uproots the trees and replaces them with replicas made of iron and cement. There's even a mechanism by which the leaves, meticulously hand-painted by his wife, can be released. Crawford carefully details their construction, but Mrs. Unguentine needs but one word to describe them: "monstrosities."
Clearly, "Log of the S.S. the Mrs. Unguentine" is a metaphor for marriage, but Crawford's work is more than a narrative Noah's ark. Like the barge, it's so rigorously constructed that we cannot help but suspend our disbelief. "Warm mornings," Mrs. Unguentine tells us, "we would take breakfast to the very end of the stern deck behind the pilot-house, sometimes sit on the deck itself, legs dangling overboard, as sea gulls threaded back and forth over our white wake and eyed our movements, our toast, fried eggs."
While Crawford's novel brings to mind the great literature of the sea ("Moby-Dick," "Mutiny on the Bounty" "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"), he doesn't allude to it; he doesn't have to. "Log of the S.S. the Mrs. Unguentine" -- the book's most inelegant passage is its title -- is a brave and audacious novel whose style, structure, story and language come together like strands of hemp spliced into an intricate knot.
Is the premise fantastic? Absolutely. But the novel's emotional truth is as instructive as any fable. Marriage, Crawford seems to be saying, is more than a long sea voyage: It's like being press-ganged onto a sloop ruled by a bullying first mate and a treacherous captain.
These aren't uncharted waters, but Crawford's approach is unique. His novel is to marriage what Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" is to parenting. In a world so audaciously cruel, our humanity depends on that which binds us to others. Whatever you want to call this essence, it's universally expressed through the institution of marriage -- the most complicated and confounding metaphor of all.
Jim Ruland is the author of the short story collection "Big Lonesome."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun