In the Whale's Wake
ON Nov. 20, 1820, a rogue sperm whale went head to head with the Nantucket whale ship Essex and sank her in mid-Pacific. Depending on how the 19th century chose to look at it, this unprecedented event was the result of God's inscrutable will, evidence of some motiveless malignancy in nature or just sheer chance. There is no doubt, though, about its most remarkable literary offshoot. The fate of the Essex provided Herman Melville with the theme, at least one of the characters (Starbuck) and the ending of ''Moby-Dick.''
For over a century, that novel has pretty well pre-empted whaling as a subject for serious fiction. Now comes ''The Jonah Man'' by Henry Carlisle, a San Francisco novelist with Nantucket roots, recording and re-creating as fiction the life and fate of the Essex' crew and especially its ill-starred captain, George Pollard.
For in real life, there was naturally a sequel. The Essex sank slowly. All 20 of her crew got safely off in three lightly built whaleboats. For two months and some 4,000 tortuous miles, they struggled against thirst and hunger and the sea. One whaleboat disappeared entirely. But in the end, eight men survived, and two boats captained by Pollard and his first mate, Owen Chase, reached the shore of South America.
Beyond the courage and almost unimaginable hardihood of whalemen, the horrible fascination of the story turns on the fact that in both boats men were driven to eat the flesh of crew members who died of hunger or exposure. In Pollard's boat, eventually lots were even drawn to see who would be killed and eaten so others might prolong a faint hope of survival. The one who drew the short lot was Pollard's favorite nephew, Owen Coffin, age 16, and it was Coffin's friend, Charles Ramsdell, who had to shoot him.
In trying to imagine Pollard's life before and after he was permanently marked as ''the American who had consumed his kinsman,'' Mr. Carlisle leans heavily on a detailed account produced by Owen Chase in 1822. Chase went on to become a successful whaling captain - though he died insane, hoarding food because, some said, he remembered the weeks of starvation in the open boat. After the Essex disaster, Pollard got command of the whale ship Two Brothers. She went aground in a freak wind change. Deciding he was ''an unlucky man,'' Pollard beached himself on Nantucket and lived out his life as a night watchman.
These dramatic real-life givens, richly specific and encouraging reflection on destiny and design in life (or their absence), do not make Mr. Carlisle's attempt at an imaginative biography of George Pollard either easy or successful. Reading ''The Jonah Man,'' one's attention is steadily sabotaged by the distracting question of exactly what Mr. Carlisle has or has not created, with incidents that fail as fiction highly suspect of invention.
Especially at the beginning, ''The Jonah Man'' fairly clanks with stagy portents of Things to Come. But the book is always interesting, in part because the reader can so clearly watch the writer work. Mr. Carlisle finally achieves a mildly philosophical novel about a man's aging, about coming to terms with worldly failure and personal blame, in Pollard's case while playing hide-and-seek with most of the moral absolutes his century adhered to. Aboard the Essex, Pollard is not much more than a boys' book protagonist. But ruined and ashore for life, despite some attempts by Mr. Carlisle to melodramatize the story, he becomes a satisfactory character.
The conclusion reached by so many Graham Greene characters, that with God for a friend you don't need an enemy, does not explicitly occur to Pollard. He seems to lean toward the notion that perfect peace resides in the sure knowledge of God's utter absence. Yet he finally passes a kind of existential judgment on the events in the whaleboat (this is difficult in part because nobody ashore understands or wants to talk about it), deciding there are things worse than death, especially inner personal dishonor.
There is a fine closing scene in which Ralph Waldo Emerson comes to Nantucket (as he in fact did) to give an upbeat speech about the ''the infinitude and power of the private man.'' Congratulate yourself, he tells his audience, including Pollard, ''if you have done something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a decorous age.'' Pollard's reaction: ''There were things of this world, well known to us, about which the Sage of Concord was ignorant. . . . He didn't know anything about darkness.''
Melville met George Pollard on Nantucket in the early 1850's, later noting that ''To the islanders he was a nobody - to me the most impressive man, tho' wholly unassuming even humble - that I ever encountered.'' ''The Jonah Man'' does not succeed in making George Pollard impressive. But it amply demonstrates that this quondam cannibal died old and full of memories.