A Test In Stamina
It was a chilly October morning in Queens. The streets were empty save for a wandering beggar and a handful of stray cats. I was in search of books-cheap books-and I 'd been told there was an old man on the street with just such a supply. I knew I could get the good stuff-the classics- for a buck, while the crap sold like hot cakes for $2.75. The old man had blackened teeth and one ambitious eye drawing lazy circles around its withered socket. He gave me the once over with his obedient eye and tossed a copy of "Confessions of a Video Vixen" my way. Mildly insulted, I told him I'd pass on "Vixen", and that I was looking for something with a little more teeth. He let out a high pitched cackle and pointed a bony digit towards a stack of classic literature. And there it lay as defiant as the cold steel of a harpoon in a pool of fresh spermaceti... Moby Dick. Its quiet black cover dissembling the white hot Cetacean rage that pulsed beneath.
"You'll never finish you know. Ha ha ha!" he howled, snatching my tattered dollar and once more revealing a row of teeth as dark as a muscadine grape.
"I once wasted 2 months of my life trying to read Ulysses," I said "I'll take my chances with Mr. Dick."
I could still hear the old man's cackle as I climbed the subway stairs with my latest acquisition tucked safely under my armpit. A wave of excitement rippled through me as I pried open the book that would haunt me for the next 12 months.
From the first paragraph I was struck by the beauty and simplicity of his prose, his words clinging to me like the fierce Nantucket gale.
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it
is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily
bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet...I account it high time to get to sea
as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical
flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.
I was hooked...that is until I got to chapter 32, "Cetology".
Most people who give up on Moby Dick do so at this point. I powered through the exhaustive lecture on the many species of Leviathan, only to find several more chapters devoted to the many wonders of the whale hunt, the dissection of the prodigious beast, and the storage of its oil and blubber.
Who knew it was such a long and complicated process? Herman Melville that's who.
All of these long and frustratingly detailed chapters I managed to stomach while maintaining some modicum of enthusiasm for the remainder of the book. But when Melville began what was to be a two chapter summary of the basic measurements of the Sperm Whale's skeleton, I could take no more!
My reading dropped down to a couple of pages a day. I used any flimsy excuse to abandon my old book for the allure offered by most other books-a moving plot and dialogue. I began using Moby Dick as a pillow on a slow day at work, a coaster at my bedside at night, and a paper weight for my sheet music in my voice lessons. Anything to keep me from the painstaking detail of Melville's indefatigable pen. Until one day the book was gone. Vanished without a trace. My burden was lifted- but the hollow cackle of the decrepit book seller rang in my ear..."You'll never finish you know. Ha ha ha!" What should have been the joyous celebration of a life free of paper cuts, joint strain, and retinal fatigue instead became an ever increasing longing for closure. What happens with the whale!?!
Just as the dismembered Captain's hate for his elusive foe grew as he rounded Cape Horn, my thirst for an ending to this cursed book did equally grow. And that's when it hit me- Herman Melville is more than just our erudite navigator of the high seas, but a master of suspense! Craftily keeping his tiring readers distracted from the endless hunt for the White Beast with flowery prose and longwinded lectures! How better to terrify his readers than by shrouding his eponymous character in veil of mystery? Giving the whale a protracted introduction through a series of deadly prophecies, and horrifying tales of his malignant attacks. All of this culminating in a slow reveal rivaling that of a Sally Rand fan dance- ingenious! I had to find that book! But how the hell was I going to muster the energy to finish it?
Some days after my grand realization,I found myself dragging an old suitcase and other belongings out of the common area of my apartment and into my room. And there it was again in all its verbally superfluous glory-laying in my suitcase exactly where I'd left it after my last visit home. I picked it up and felt in its weight the dread that comes from knowing you may be completely lost in a book and have to start anew. This was the deciding moment. I was Starbuck. Hovering over Ahab with loaded musket in hand like a sea weary Hamlet. Do I put an end to the infinite page turning? Or do I hoist the sails and ride the back of this literary Leviathan to its dark and watery finish? Suddenly I felt the swell of the sea and the taste of its gritty salt in my mouth. I was surrounded by that grizzly monomaniac and his rag tag pack of whale hunters. His gnarled fist pumping the air and ivory leg pounding out the rhythms of the deep blue on deck as he cries:
Look ye, Nantucketer; here in this hand I hold his death! Tempered in blood, and
tempered by lightening are these barbs; And I swear to temper them triply in that
hot place behind the fin, where the white whale most feels his accursed life!
The curl of my fingers on the page acted as the curl of the sailor's lips around the deadly chalice on which they swore allegiance to Ahab and death to white whale. I, like them, swore an oath to conquer the great Leviathan! And so I read. Plunging into the depths of that book with a ferocity that would put the most seasoned harpooneer to shame! Ripping into the pages like a blood thirsty Ahab-hell bent on claiming the prize that he and his crew would never win-Moby Dick! I seared into the hot flesh of the beast until his black blood spewed forth and the final chapter was read!
After the fray, I wondered back to Astoria in search of that fish eyed and withered would-be Elijah, who 12 months prior sold me this interminable masterpiece. Spotting his hunch back straining under the weight of The Complete Works of Shakespeare, I shoved my prize in his face and let out a hearty cackle heard clear from Ditmars to the China Seas!
"IN YOUR FACE SUCKA! HA HA HA!"
I dedicate this post to my fallen men of the Pequod who, unlike I, were unable to conquer the Great White Beast...Moby Dick.