NOTES CONSIGNED TO BOTTLES are customarily desperate but rarely written in free verse. Evan S. Connell's are both. Manipulated by a better-than-good young novelist, the mixture turns out to be a hard-to-follow but strangely effective message from Connell to what he clearly believes is a doomed world.
At first look, Notes sounds like the disordered rambling of a demented candidate for a degree in universal knowledge who has tossed his index cards into the nearest bottle after emptying it at a gulp. His note writer is a nameless wanderer on a ship that finally founders in icy seas. The surface of his world is all history, held in an instantaneous, timeless memory where the flight of the Enola Gay over Hiroshima is contemporary with the imprisonment of Galileo, and where, for example, Nero might fiddle while Chicago burns. The depth he contemplates is the inexhaustible profundity of human cruelty. A man's hands are slashed and filled with salt, another's leg is wrenched from its socket by a driven team of horses.
The question that plagues the wanderer is the ancient one: How to account for the evil in man if God is both all powerful and good? And like many another modern soul seared by a too-strong vision of atomic doom, he turns back to the heretical judgment of the medieval Manichees: God and the Devil are at best an equal match.
For those game enough to plow through it, Notes also offers some less harrowing dividends. During the Panama campaign, the wanderer reports, "Balboa's dog received the pay of a crossbowman." A Christian named Bohemund "sent to the Greek emperor a cargo of thumbs and noses." In the case of suspected witches or sorcerers, the Devil's mark "will be found under the lip or upon the fundament, if the suspect be a man. Where women are concerned one should meticulously examine the breasts and pudenda."
A reader who cares to classify the book's learned asides will have enough abstruse anecdotes and arcane folklore to dine out on for a season at least.