Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Last Ship

The Last Ship by William Brinkley
Viking, 1988
Hardcover, 616 pages
ISBN-13 (for the paperback): 9780345359827

The unimaginable horror of total nuclear war has been let loose upon the world, and only one ship, the Nathan James, with 152 men and 26 women aboard, has survived. Her captain narrates the electrifying story of this crew's voyage through the hell of nuclear winter, their search for survival, and the fate of mankind when they find an uncontaminated paradise.
My Thoughts:

This post-nuclear apocalyptic novel focuses on the survival of the crew of the destroyer Nathan James. Although, surprisingly, the actual actions of the crew are secondary to the incessant, introspective, ponderous narrative by the ship's captain. Many of the captain's reflections concern how much more wonderful sailors are, in every respect, when compared to other people. I guess it's good sailors are, perhaps, the only known survivors, huh? Someone did need a good editor for The Last Ship. I concur with the sentiments expressed by Publishers Weekly: "Perhaps the most surprising thing about this apocalyptic novel of the sea is that Brinkley has been able to spin so slender a plot to so great a length - more than 500 pages." Or, more precisely for my copy, 616 pages - of small type.

It soon became clear that the key for reading The Last Ship was not to savor every word (as one does when reading a truly great author, where it is clear that every word was carefully chosen), but to quickly skim over many sections of the captain's verbosity, while looking for some forward movement of the plot. Oh, and the captain repeats information too - just in case you missed something. (Kudos to the great vocabulary, even though at times reading it felt like I was at a cocktail party stuck listening to some pretentious jerk talking just to show off. See the last quote, chosen because it was actually a typical sentence.) There was also a rather graphic sex scene late in the novel that felt like an unnecessary addition and was totally out of place. Actually, trying for no spoilers here, the arrangement with the women was totally unrealistic. It would have behooved Brinkley to, perhaps, talk with some real women about it rather than relying on his imagination.

Although this is asking a lot of a reader, set the writing aside and the actual plot is decent. We don't get enough information about what started the war, but the premise that only one ship has survived is intriguing. The dilemma is in whether or not I would recommend this book to others. You might enjoy The Last Ship if you like post-apocalyptic fiction and at the same time are not intimidated by an author's excessive use of a large vocabulary (not always correctly used), and pages of complicated sentences.
for the plot, so-so for the author's writing


In bravura beauty, no ship has ever come off a Navy ways to be compared with the destroyer and she was a fine example of a noble breed. opening

It was with the Tomahawk cruise missile, sometimes it seemed with scarcely anyone noticing the fact, that matters began to get beyond all hope of control. pg. 2

There follows the story of my ship, the Nathan James, DDG (guided missile destroyer) 80. I sometimes have wondered, as perhaps did every soul of the 282 men and twenty-three officers in ship's company, as to the extent to which what happened was affected by the fact that thirty-two of these - six officers , twenty six enlisted - were women. What the difference might have been had they not been present and aboard. pg. 5

Yet feeling surely it must be the former, how could it be otherwise: Remembering that moment when Lieutenant (jg) Selmon, gone ashore all alone with his instruments, staying overlong to make sure beyond all doubt of his findings, had finally returned, climbed the accommodation ladder to the quarterdeck where I stood awaiting him, and spoke in his quiet manner that imprimatur that took us awhile even to comprehend before belief set in: "Captain, the island is uncontaminated." pg. 21

When the Navy not long ago first commenced assigning a few women to ships, I felt it to be one of the incalculable fundamental errors that seem to be made only by civilizations in decline, a lapse profound and past comprehension in both the most elementary morality and judgment. pg. 23

"At continued reduced rations we can live off ship's stores for four months - allowing that for any kind of harvest ashore... figuring in an awful lot of fish..." Her voice bore down. "I mean a lot... I've checked all this with Palatti. He agrees." pg. 25

Even then I felt that life on the oceans was the only life worth living, the sea seeming to me, even at the earliest age - that surely but sensed dimly then, certainly put in no such grandiose terms; looking back I could but see the fledgling shoots for present, substantiated, full-grown certainty - to possess a purity, a simple straightforwardness, a rectitude, a scrupulousness, yes, a clear aristocracy, that stood in contradiction to the unnumbered corruptions of the churlish and plebeian land and the land life, with all its hustling, its tedious and incessant hype, its seemingly essential duplicities and deviousness, its insect busyness, its insatiable avarice, all in zealous pursuit of goals I did not judge worth having if, when attained. pg. 42


Unknown said...

A friend loaned me the book, and expressed his love of the book, and his feeling that it's author is a great writer. WOW! was I in for a big surprise? This book has an intriguing premise for the story, and great potential for plot development, but the story gets bogged down by the authors long-winded verbosity.
I found the story and it's characters difficult to follow at times due to the endless, unnecessary, embellishments, of simple ideas. Sometimes, expressing an idea, simply, and succinctly, has the most impact. A good writer can convey complex ideas, and profound thoughts with few words. Brinkley, is not one of those authors; while he exhibits, to the reader, his impressive vocabulary, he wears the reader out in his attempts to use every. word in it.

Lori L said...

You've expressed my feelings exactly, Jim. It was a great idea for a story but Brinkley failed in his execution of the idea.