Hairy Stuff


James Conaway

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In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, $25). This retooling of one of history’s most disturbing seafaring tales, the sinking of the Essex in 1820, contains two certified attention-getters—attack by monster, and cannibalism. The author, a historian, draws on several 19th-century accounts (two of which were reissued last year) in this taut nonfiction thriller, salted with recent starvation studies and larded with period whaling details. The 240-ton Essex set sail from Nantucket in August 1819 with a mostly Quaker crew and met its nemesis 15 months later in the Pacific: an 80-foot sperm whale that became the inspiration for Herman Melville’s white leviathan in Moby-Dick. “With its huge scarred head halfway out of the water,” Philbrick writes, “and its tail beating the ocean into a white-water wake more than 40 feet across,” the whale rammed the ship twice, piercing her hull and sinking her in a matter of minutes, relegating the 20-man crew to three leaky whaleboats with little drinking water and a terrifying decision: Should they head west, toward the nearby Society Islands, believed to be inhabited by hostile natives; or backtrack 3,500 miles to South America? Captain George Pollard Jr. turned east and wound up devouring a portion of his first cousin. (“Gastronomic incest,” a scholar later called it.) Only five men survived, rescued by American whalers off the Chilean coast, having been sustained by the flesh of their deceased—in one case, executed—mates. Philbrick keeps the questions of endurance and guilt before readers, along with a fair helping of irony: The crew had feared the Society Islanders because they were said to practice cannibalism. 

Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed, by Dean King (Henry Holt, $28). Set during the Na-poleonic Wars, O’Brian’s acclaimed Aubrey-Maturin seafaring novels (20 in all, the first and most famous of which is Master and Commander) created an enormous readership of vicarious voyagers. Fans may be surprised to learn that the author had limited sailing experience and never once set foot on a square-rigged ship. What’s more, we learn in this first biography of O’Brian, who died in January at 85, the writer’s whole life was fiction: He was not Irish, but English, and changed his name from Richard Patrick Russ after abandoning his wife and two small children (one with spina bifida) in 1940. Remarried and settled in France by 1949, O’Brian churned out everything from novels to a biography of Picasso. But it was the meticulously researched seafaring series, starting in 1969, that earned him a cult following among sailors and history buffs and, ultimately, literary kudos and wealth. Although King was the first to discover O’Brian’s real identity, he was publicly outed as a Brit by a 1998 exposé in an English newspaper. He continued to guard his privacy jealously, and refused to cooperate with King—an American whose diligent sleuthing does indeed reveal a life but, as he admits himself, something less than the whole man.

My Quest for the Yeti: Confronting the Himalayas’ Deepest Mystery, by Reinhold Messner (St. Martin’s Press, $24). The man who ascended Everest solo and without oxygen in 1978, and was the first to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks, attempts an equally daunting task: solving the mystery of the yeti. For centuries that phantom has fascinated cryptozoologists trying—and failing—to document its existence. Messner, for his part, is convinced that one followed him through the eastern Tibetan woods in 1986. His short, rambling investigation takes the reader through a Tibetan landscape occupied by the Chinese army but still dominated by the teachings of the Buddhist lamas, and across Nepal, where hermits, monks, and villagers all report encounters with the beast. Messner decides that the yeti’s real and imaginary components are linked in a misty conflation of demon and quasi-human fauna known to locals across the region as mete, lungomba, tshute, dremo, dzu teh, and mih teh. To Westerners the yeti has been an abominable snowman, a lost member of Gigantopithicus, and—to the Nazis—a “cold-resistant Proto-Aryan.” In the end, Messner comes up with little more than a speculative fistful of hair and a theory that the yeti is a rare and furtive subspecies of brown bear that dwells “in the opposition between civilization and wilderness. 

Anil’s Ghost, by Michael Ondaatje (Knopf, $25). In his first novel since The English Patient, Ondaatje again uses human suffering as a backdrop for exotic characters lost in cultural anomie. The setting is modern-day Sri Lanka riven by a three-way war among the army, revolutionaries, and separatists; the protagonist is Anil Tissera, a comely forensic pathologist trying to make sense of it all. Sri Lankan by birth, American by choice, Tissera returns to her homeland to look into the charge that citizens are being systematically murdered by their government. Her search focuses on one of several skeletons of the recently “disappeared” unearthed at an archaeological dig. If she can identify it and discover where the victim was killed, she can prove crime and cover-up by highly placed authorities. Anil’s foil is the enigmatic Sarath, a talented archaeologist who both helps and hinders her progress through the sinister, vaguely delineated political landscape. Ondaatje’s portrait of rural Sri Lanka is affectingly lush and dreamy—”with the dark green light of morning around them, the men appeared to float over the open landscape”—but the narrative rambles and the violence that is its subject takes place mostly offstage, lending the story a gauziness at odds with its awful realities.

A Viking Voyage, in which W. Hodding Carter crosses the Atlantic in a Viking knarr, began as a 1998 Outside article (Ballantine, $25). Fresh Air Fiend, Paul Theroux’s latest travel collection, includes several recent Outside stories (Houghton Mifflin, $27).