Voyage to the North Star: A Novel

Voyage to the North Star: A Novel

by Peter Nichols

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"An old-fashioned adventure yarn . . . Nichols's story pulses with action that is given an extra measure of verisimilitude by his deep knowledge of boats and the sea and the watery landscapes of the Far North."—Richard Bernstein, New York Times

As harrowing as a tale by Jack London, its vision as haunting as Joseph Conrad's, this masterful novel of maritime adventure crosses the paths of Carl Schenck, a ruthless industrialist whose wealth is as fabulous as his big-game hunter's appetite for blood is limitless, and Will Boden, a seaman down on his luck. It is Schenck's blind resolve to launch an Arctic safari that affords Boden the opportunity to do what no seasoned seaman would, and flouting his own foreboding, he signs on with the Lodestar, a yacht luxuriously appointed for pleasure but drastically ill-equipped for navigating the Arctic. Together, these two men are bound in an epic misadventure that confronts them with not only the perils of the polar seas but also a horrifying moral disaster.

"Its major themes consciously derived from those of Conrad and Melville . . . a fiercely eventful novel."—New York Times

"A finely crafted adventure and a crackling good read."—Chicago Tribune

"An impressive first novel. . . . A literary page-turner that is driven as much by ideas and the writing as plot and characters."—USA Today

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786707997
Publisher: Hachette Books
Publication date: 09/22/2000
Edition description: 1 CARROLL
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.56(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Peter Nichols, in addition to his sailing adventures, has worked in the film business as a screenwriter, propmaker, and ship-wrangler. He lives in Northern California.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The boat for the chipping crew didn't leave South Street until five in the afternoon. And then it took over an hour to get down the bays to Sandy Hook, where the crew had been sitting on planks hung over the side of a Dutch freighter, pounding at the hull since six that morning. That made twelve hours. The crew was supposed to work ten hours before the boat came and got them, and the men were paid by the day, not the hour. But the contractor, Brant, always left his crews out late. He knew that a man's self-respect in hard times was a funny thing. Given the opportunity to sit and do nothing or do simple work, most men would still work those last late hours. Particularly on a chipping crew, where the sullen pounding of a hammer against a hull was exactly what the job called for. Men might grumble, but in New York in 1932 few would quit any job at all.

    There were six men on the crew, and they worked in two groups sitting on two planks. Kruger and Mills were Reds, they said. They had worked in the logging camps in Washington and in the mines in California, and they had ridden the rails east to help old Bill Foster bring down the banks and kick out the bourgeoisie. They usually started the day hungover and spent most of every morning and late afternoon cursing Brant, who was a member of the bourgeoisie, blaming him for their sore backs and empty pockets. Brant, of course, was not on the freighter. He was back up in Manhattan, probably having a long lunch with one of those women who stayed the same shape when you took her clothes off. Kruger and Mills always worked together on one plank, either withJim, the kid who had run away from college to experience life, or with Giuliano, the wop carpenter who was waiting for a call to work on a house in Brooklyn Heights. Both seemed able to endure Kruger and Mills for hours on end.

    On the other plank, on the other side of the hull, with either Jim or Giuliano, sat Moyle, a stringy elderly man who rarely said a word and pounded as hard as the kid or the wop and with greater concentration than any of them; and Will Boden, a man just under forty, with a hollow poker face and the body of a longshoreman on the skids: thin from months with only barely enough to eat, but with unusual development in his upper body from long days of brutal work. There were many men along the New York waterfront now who looked like this. Boden didn't talk much either.

    The work was monotonous. The men pounded at lumps, welts, blisters of rust that broke away from the hull in flakes and fell into the water below with a soft showering noise. Every now and then a man shinnied up the falls and dropped the plank a few feet. When they reached the waterline, they moved the plank forward a few feet and worked back up the hull. The freighter was small, 180 feet long, but sitting on a plank with a square foot of corroded hull filling a man's whole field of vision, making progress by inches, there would appear no end to the job. But all the men on the chipping crew took grim comfort from their slow insect crawl around the hull because when the chipping was finished, the freighter's crewmembers—who refused to pound at rust—would begin to paint the hull and they would all be looking for work again.

    In the late mornings, Giuliano would sing the songs he had heard Caruso sing on the radio, and Kruger and Mills would talk about women they had known in Seattle and San Francisco or tell Jim about the yard dicks and the two-stepping gandy dancers who made it hard on a man trying to ride the cars down south, but in the afternoons all the men would fall silent. Then the pounding became rhythmic as they unconsciously hammered in concert, squinting against the flying chips, mesmerized by the pounding.

    Boden looked away from the hull often. He watched the traffic going in and out of New York. He found he could no longer tell, looking at a ship, where it was from or where bound. Most were steamers, going anywhere you could guess, always by way of the canal if Pacific bound. No ships headed out for the great capes anymore. A week earlier he had seen the four-master Theoline come down the bay under lowers, spanker, and staysails, and watched her turn south and fade into the uncertain glim. Rockland-built, now out of Boston, she was carrying whatever she could find that had not gone where it was going by steamer or rail or truck. She was the only working sailing ship, apart from fishing smacks and schooners, he had seen in two weeks on his plank. When you saw a sailing ship these days, she was as likely a Gloucesterman hogged and strained from a short hard life on the Grand Banks, on her way now to a rotting dotage hauling lighter cargoes and palmetto bugs between warmer ports. Or she was bound to a breaker's yard and you were among the last to see her lift to the swell in the way that had filled the hearts of the people who had first known her.

    In another field of vision, he watched the spiders that were blown offshore out to the freighter. He saw them borne through the air like dandelion seeds, landing on the hull and crawling along the rusty steel, trying, he supposed, to make some sense of the vast, rough vertical plane on which they found themselves, their world suddenly turned strange on them. He banged his hammer near them when they got close enough, to get them headed up onto the deck where he knew they would find good places to live and bugs to eat. Kruger and Mills, he had observed, hammered them flat and kept score.

    At six, when the boat finally arrived to pick them up, Kruger and Mills jumped off their plank as it passed beneath them on its way to the ship's ladder, only Mills missed and fell into the water. Hartz, the boatman, swore at them, saying they could start a seam. Giuliano hauled their planks and hammers up onto the deck. Boden, Moyle, and Jim all shinnied up the falls to the deck and stored their gear together in a deck box and stepped down the ladder into the boat, where Kruger and Mills were howling at Mills's mistake.

    It took longer for the boat to get back to South Street because the tide was ebbing down the bays, with a breeze on top of it. Hartz hugged the Brooklyn shore going past Bay Ridge and Red Hook and up Buttermilk Channel behind Governor's Island, where the current was weaker. Boden sat low in the stern out of the breeze and watched the tugs and ships moving up and down the rivers, and the sky going pink over Bedloe and Ellis islands.

    The boat pulled alongside Pier 11 on the East River at the foot of Wall Street a little after 7:30, and the chipping crew climbed up the ramshackle ladder to the top of the pier and crossed South Street and went their own ways.

    Boden stopped in at Morahan's saloon near the corner of Fulton Street for a glass of beer and a handful of peanuts in their shells. After twelve years of Prohibition, New York was still a wide-open town. Morahan's had never bothered to water down its beer or appearance, and it had never been raided; cops drank there, and the young men and the slender girls from the magistrate's office in City Hall up Beekman and across Park Row, and longshoremen and fishermen off the schooners, and men like Boden who lived in the neighborhood, and the women friends of these men. Boden ritually drank a glass of beer there every day after work. They drew it cold up copper pipes out of the basement and he drank it slowly and relaxed.

    Outside again, walking up South Street, he looked up at the Brooklyn Bridge and saw Moyle walking across the promenade on top, going over to Brooklyn. It was some distance away and in the fading light the walkers on the bridge were small dark shapes partly obscured by the latticework of steel. But he saw it was Moyle. Caved-in, pushing forward.

The next evening, as they came up the Buttermilk, Boden said, "Moyle, you live over here in Brooklyn, don't you?"


    "Cap," he said to Hartz, giving the boatman the courtesy of the title of command, "how about pulling in here on the Brooklyn side to let Moyle off? Save him going over the bridge."

    "I just go to the pier," said Hartz.

    "That's where I'll get off," said Moyle.

    "Moyle lives in Brooklyn," said Boden. "You can come alongside anywhere here and let him off. Save him the walk."

    "Yeah, and pretty soon I'm playing taxi and taking everybody everywhere. I take them from the pier down to the boat and back. I got to get home too."

    "No one wants to go anywhere else. We're all going into the pier. It's not going to take you any time."

    "Say, maybe you could drop us off at the New York Yacht Club," said Kruger.

    Boden turned and looked at Kruger.

    Moyle threw the stained fag-end of his cigarette into the water. "I'll walk."

    Boden turned back to Hartz. "All I'm asking is for you to pull over here fifty feet and let him out anywhere. You can do that without going out of your way."

    "If it's so goddamn close, let him jump overboard and swim."

    Boden looked away at the docks sliding past close to starboard. Then he stood up and moved to the side of Hartz's seat and sat on the edge of it, his thigh next to the boatman's shoulder. Hartz tensed. He tried to pull away but he was up against the side of the boat. He had to turn his head and look up and slightly backward to see Boden's face.

    "What do you want?"

    "I'd like you to come alongside over here and let Mr. Moyle off. Right there." Boden pointed to a dock. Hartz, who was younger and heavier than Boden, twisted his head around again and looked up into Boden's hard-lined face. He looked ahead once more, then pulled the throttle back.

    "Why not? Take everyone where they want to go. Why the hell not? I got anything better to do?" He spun the wheel and the boat veered toward the Brooklyn shore.

    Hartz put her alongside the wooden pilings of the ramshackle pier Boden had indicated, the prop in slow ahead to hold the boat stationary in the strong ebb. Moyle hopped ashore. Boden followed him.

    "Much obliged to you," Boden said to Hartz.

    Hartz slammed the throttle forward, swearing inaudibly against the noise of the engine, and the boat jumped out into the river.

    "What'd you do that for?" said Moyle. He was angry.

    "I saw you walking over the bridge last night."

    "So what?"

    "I figured he could let you off this side."

    "You figured yourself fired is what you did. Maybe me too."

    "It wasn't out of his way."

    "Fuck him. Fuck you too." Moyle turned his bent back away and stomped down the pier.

    Boden walked up to the bridge and back across the river to Manhattan. He liked walking across the Brooklyn Bridge.

The next morning, Brant was at the pier at six when the men arrived to go down to the freighter.

    "You're fired," he said to Boden. Hartz was smirking. The rest of the men stepped into the boat. "I don't have troublemakers working for me. Any man wants to make trouble, he can get out of the boat now." The men in the boat were silent. "Okay. Get 'em out of here."

    Hartz backed the boat neatly off the pier, spinning it around in reverse between the piers before moving out into the river current.

    "You got anything to say?" Brant looked at Boden.

    "I want the money that's coming to me."

    Brant pulled two tens and four singles out of a fat billfold and handed Boden the money. He ran a hand along the brim of his hat and walked toward South Street.

    Boden walked fast across town to the Chelsea piers and joined a shape-up at Cunard-White Star. The crowd was a big one and some of the men wore homburgs and suits and looked as if they had lost their way to work in an office and found themselves in a strange place and were frightened.

    A man started shouting, "There's no unemployment in the Soviet Union, comrades!" Four men came away from the straw boss's hut beside the terminal and surrounded him. For a moment he continued shouting, "And there wouldn't be any here either if the workers—" An elbow rammed into his mouth, a baseball bat hit the back of his knees, he went down. The four men knelt around his head for seven or eight seconds, quick jerks convulsing their backs and shoulders, then they rose and dragged the limp Red away.

    Minutes passed. At seven-twenty the boss and his foreman, well-fed men in clean suits, came out of the hut and they made the call. The regulars and the straw boss's favorites filled the crews, and at seven-thirty Boden turned away. It was too late to try another pier.

    He walked back to the east side. The fishing schooners had all unloaded and were quiet again, their crews asleep below, or rolled in a sail on deck. He walked through the Fulton market and looked at the fish, fat and firm and clean-smelling in boxes of ice, iridescent markings still strong. The place smelled clean and of the sea. He watched people selecting fish. A restaurant buyer in kitchen livery followed by three boys carrying boxes full of bright shellfish. A man in a threadbare suit carried away a small, carefully chosen fish in a paper bag.

    He walked up Pearl to the Blossom Restaurant on the Bowery, where he ordered a pork tenderloin and coffee for fifteen cents. You could eat for less, but the cheaper food would turn your muscle to fat, and he wanted to keep strong. He found a copy of the Herald Tribune near the door, and read the paper through while he ate.

The next day he joined a crew breaking up a Hooverville in the old Armour packing plant on West Thirtieth Street. The pay was two dollars for the day, a whole day guaranteed.

    They went in at six in the morning, fifteen men on the crew and three cops, two more cops and a wagon on the street. On the plant's large open second floor they found eighty bodies huddled in cardboard boxes. Some of the men slept in cubicles made of packing boxes in which they had set up small stoves and arranged old chairs and their cardboard suitcases, and boards with their pants draped neatly over them, and even shelves filled with books, so that these rough boxes in the empty meatpacking plant had become, to the men who made them, a form of home.

    A few of the men had dogs with them, and as the crew and the cops came up the stairs, the dogs began to bark savagely, or mournfully, as if they knew what was coming. The cops blew their whistles and the bodies on the floor began to sit up in their blankets, and waited to see what would happen.

    "Okay," shouted one of the cops, and he banged his stick against a pipe, "Up an' at 'em! Get what you're takin' and get outta here. Let's go!"

    The dogs continued barking. Men rose slowly to their feet in their blankets like spectral figures. Some got up and walked straight to the stairs, others began cramming belongings into suitcases. A number of men pushed baby carriages filled with blankets, books, kerosene lanterns, paper packages. Men pulled their shanty cubicles apart and went away carrying bundles of splintered boards.

    A man started shouting angrily at the cops. "Just where should I go? You want to tell me that? Where in ever-loving hell should I go?"

    "I just got orders here, bub," answered a cop in an amiable, conversational tone, but as loud as a tenor at the Met, louder than the man shouting at him. "You can't stay because it's against the fire laws, see? Now don't gimme no trouble and make me break your head and drag you outta here."

    They found a man dead in a cardboard box and three others still breathing but unable to move. Boden and a wordless young man in a pinstripe suit were detailed to carry the body down to the street.

    "But keep him in the box," the crew boss instructed them.

    The skin on the face appearing at the edge of the box was blue-blotched with decay like a Stilton cheese. The corpse stank of defecation and something else, rich and sweetish. Boden took the lower end of the box and most of the weight going down the stairs. The young man kept his head turned to the wall all the way down. Outside, the cop on the street told them to put the stiff in the wagon. When they'd finished, the young man in the pinstripe suit walked away up Tenth Avenue.

    The cop put a hand on Boden's shoulder and pointed a fat finger up the side of the packing plant. "We got a bird building a nest." On the top of the building's fire escape, cardboard was flattened against the railings, enclosing the top landing. "Go on up and throw that stuff down."

    As Boden neared the top of the three long flights of the fire escape, which vibrated and rang as he climbed, the head of an elderly man poked out of the huddle of cardboard and looked at him.

    "Please go away!" said the man, already looking hopeless, knowing that Boden would not.

    As he drew level with the top landing, Boden saw the man had strung a clothesline to the building and hung dark socks and a pair of long boxer shorts on it.

    "For the love of Mike, leave me alone!" The man had an accent Boden recognized as Swedish. "I'm not hurting anyone up here!"

    "It's got nothing to do with me," said Boden. "It's the cops. They say it's on account of the fire laws."

    "Fire laws! They're not worried about no goddamn fire! The second a man finds a place to flop they got to run him out! It's got nothing to do with no goddamn fires!"

    Boden didn't argue with him because the man, who appeared to be about seventy years old, with a face that made Boden think of a college professor, was already taking in his laundry. He untied the string and wound it into a small ball and took that too. A minute later he was dressed in a suit and descending the fire escape with a cardboard suitcase. He had said nothing more. Boden watched him reach the street and walk away without looking up.

    "Now throw all that mess down," the cop called up to him.

    Boden began pulling the cardboard shelter apart and throwing its pieces down to the street. The flattened boxes sailed down through the air in swooping arcs, scattering widely around the patrolman who stood with his face upturned, watching like a kid lost in the play of birds.

    Inside the plant, the crew gathered up all the boxes and clothing, books and bundles the evicted men had left behind and went through everything themselves, taking what they wanted. They brought all the rest outside and heaped it in the vacant lot beside the building. Later in the afternoon a fire crew arrived and set fire to the bundle, and the men of the wrecking crew stood around the fire and stared into it. A couple of them threw potatoes into the ashes and ate them afterward. At the end of the day, Boden got his two dollars, and the crew boss offered him more work.

    The next day the crew cleared another jungle at West Thirty-eighth between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues. For the rest of the week they broke up Hoovervilles that were growing inside warehouses and old ferry terminals on the East River piers. Some of the men they evicted joined the crew, which by the end of the week numbered more than thirty. They were as black-faced as coal miners from days spent removing other men and their debris from abandoned buildings and from standing around fires. At night the men drifted away and reappeared wherever the boss told them to meet in the mornings, many as filthy as they had looked the night before.

    The crew boss said there was talk that a bunch of crews might be put together to break up Tin Mountain City, the great four-acre camp of huts and junked automobiles down along the Red Hook waterfront that was home to 8000 men. They would all get extra pay for that. The boss said it would be like something out of the Bible, like kicking out the Canaanites, to go down there and break up Tin Mountain City.

    "Yeah, but where would all those people go?" said one of the men on the crew.

    "They'd go somewhere else," said the boss, "and then we'd throw 'em outta there too!"

    At the end of the day on Friday the boss told the crew where to meet on Monday morning. The men wanted to work the next day, but they were city employees now, the boss told them, so they had the weekend off.

Boden rented a room for nine dollars a week at Meyer's Hotel at 115 South Street, across the street from the docks where the fishing schooners tied up. When he approached the hotel that evening, a man came away from the shadows at the side of the building and moved toward him. He turned and saw Moyle.

    "You feel like a beer?" said Moyle.

    They walked around the corner to Morahan's and ordered two beers with shooters.

    They drank in silence. Boden waited. They had almost finished the beer when Moyle said, "I know a guy looking for a navigator. Couple weeks' work. You interested?"

    "Yeah, I'd be interested. How do you know I can navigate?"

    "I know who you are. I read about you in the papers." Moyle coughed suddenly, horked, and spat a green gob into the sawdust on the floor. He took a sip of beer.

    "So what's the job?"

    "Going offshore with a bunch of nobs. Guy I know works for one of them, was asking me if I knew someone."

    He handed Boden a smudged, folded sheet of paper. Boden unfolded it and read "American Yaht Club Rye Shred saterday" written in pencil in a cramped scrawl on the center of the sheet.

    "You go out there to that yacht club at Rye, tomorrow morning at eleven. You see a man called Shred. Don't bring nothing with you then, you're just going to talk."

    "All right. Thanks. I appreciate it." Boden looked at the older man. Moyle was wearing a grimy singlet and the same oil-stained dark blue trousers he had worn every day they were chipping rust on the freighter. "You still on that rust bucket?"

    "This week I been cleaning airplanes." He told Boden he had been hosing down and polishing the small commuter seaplanes that sat in the water beside the docks of the Downtown Skyport at the foot of Wall Street. "They like small guys like me who can climb around without denting them. They're made of nothing. You?"

    Boden told him of his work on the clearing crews.

    Moyle finished his beer. He got off his stool. "I got to be going." He fished in his pocket for some change.

    "Let me get it," said Boden. "Thanks for the tip. Hey, let's have another beer sometime."

    "Yeah, maybe," said Moyle, and he left.

    Boden had another one right then.

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