No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, September 16, 2007

#52: The Navigator of New York -- Wayne Johnston

The eponymous Navigator -- from the old word for 'explorer', though this novel's set in the first years of the twentieth century -- is Devlin Stead, a young man from Newfoundland. Devlin, after receiving a series of letters to which it's impossible to respond, travels to New York to confront the letters' author, Dr Frederick Cook.

Connoisseurs of Arctic history will be familiar with Cook's name and his history: his claim to be the first man to reach the North Pole, and the first to scale Mount McKinley in Alaska. The first claim was challenged by Robert Peary, whom history recognises as first to the Pole; the second was proven fake by Cook's travelling companion, who testified that they had not ascended the mountain. Debate still rages.

And debate rages within these pages too: Peary and Cook's feud, post-Pole, occupies a significant portion of the novel, with Devlin fiercely loyal to Cook. Cook, after all, knew his father, Francis Stead, and was on the expedition on which he died. Cook, it turns out, also knew Devlin's mother. And Cook is a man who can keep a secret: indeed he relinquishes them only reluctantly, and even the last few pages of the novel contain unexpected revelations -- unexpected to Devlin, at least, though I was beginning to suspect that there might be a little more to Cook's version of events than he'd yet disclosed.

Though the focus, for the main part, is on the relationship between Devlin and Cook, the scenery is stunning. The sense of New York -- Manhattan -- springing up almost overnight, the sheer energy of this new city (when Devlin first arrives, the north part of Manhattan Island is still fields, where families live in shacks: Cook recalls a time when men hunted small game from the roof-gardens of the Dakota Apartments), is vividly recounted, its sheer vitality a marked constrast to the polar wastes. Which is not to say that the Arctic passages are lacking: Johnston evokes the emptiness, the oddness of the polar regions in language that reminds me of Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen. Devlin's mother walks beside him across the ice, the fifth in a party of four. Jo Peary, devoted wife of the explorer, poses in formal dress with her daughter Marie on a Greenland beach. The Belgica is photographed by night, eerily flash-lit ...
Eventually, a 'day' consisted of an hour-long twilight, the sun barely clearing the almost-flat horizon to the east before it began to set again.
We could not keep our minds from reacting as they normally would to the light conditions, could not help feeling that this was the dusk of a day in which the sun had run its normal course across the sky and now was setting. We did what people do at dusk: gave in to reflectiveness, to thoughts of the past and what the coming days would bring.

Devlin's story is inextricably linked with Cook's -- and with Peary's, after Devlin saves him from a chilly death in Greenland. And in the end, Devlin, who has given his allegiance wholeheartedly to Cook's cause in the feud between the rival explorers, discovers that Peary holds the key that will unlock the last of Cook's secrets.

Devlin is very much of his time, stiff and shy, his emotions painted in bright simple colours. I'm not sure I liked him, but I pitied and envied him. And Johnston's writing, his evocation of Newfoundland and New York and the Arctic, is sparse and brilliant at once, like light on snow.

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