Ahab’s Return: or, The Last Voyage by Jeffrey Ford
Ahab’s Return: or, The Last Voyage (2018), by Jeffrey Ford, is a Locus finalist for fantasy novels, so one should keep that in mind while taking in this review, as I take a somewhat (though only somewhat) lesser view of the novel. Which happens to me surprisingly often with awards outside the Booker; probably something else to keep in mind.
The titular character is indeed that Captain Ahab of Moby Dick fame, but what one should know off the bat is that one needn’t have read that classic American work to follow/enjoy Ahab’s Return. A good thing since not many have read it (including a number of those who say they have — you know who you are). Ford’s opening conceit is that Ahab actually survived his final encounter with the great white whale (spoiler alert for the 70-year-old novel, and I guess for a certain Star Trek movie) and has returned to Manhattan in search of his wife and son Gabriel, who left Nantucket after hearing Ahab had died. That news came to the world via a book written, not by Herman Melville, but by Ishmael, supposedly the sole survivor of that disastrous attempt to kill the whale. Ishmael, until his opium addiction took him down, was for a while the copy editor at a the Gorgon’s Mirror: “the premier five-cent illustrated rag of hokum in the great city of Manhattan,” according to the novel’s narrator, Harrow.
Harrow, who is, in the words of his editor, the “finest confabulator, on this godforsaken island,” meets Ahab when the captain comes to the paper’s office in search of Ishmael and, sensing a great story ripe for his usual embellishment, Harrow convinces his editor to bankroll Ahab’s search for his family. Unfortunately, that quest gets Harrow and Ahab mixed up with the villainous Malbaster, Manhattan’s most dangerous and most mysterious criminal figure, rumored to wield magic and have as his companions a zombie assassin and a deadly female manticore who recites poetry. As Ahab and Harrow try to track down Gabriel (who, they’ve learned, works for Malbaster), they’re joined by yet a third member of the Pequod who survived the clash with Moby Dick. Madi (named Daggoo in Ishmael’s book) lives with other free blacks in Seneca Village, where Central Park now stands, and though he hates Ahab for all the death his obsession led to, he is forced to work with him to get justice for Malbaster having killed two children from the Village. Finally, Harrow’s little group is rounded out by a trio of fierce women: Harrow’s housekeeper Misha, a street urchin named Mavi, and Arabella, an upper-class lady writing an opium-fueled book.
Ford does an excellent job in recreating the sights, sounds, and smells of mid-1800s Manhattan, dropping, as well, a lot of street and place names that lend a strong sense of historical verisimilitude and will be, I assume, even more effective for NYC residents. The time period comes alive as well in the language, tone and style of the book, which is basically a pulp novel (our narrator, after all, is a serial writer for a penny press) filled with brawls and chase scenes, opium dens and dangerous wharfs, and plenty of knives, guns, and fists. The macabre/gothic elements are here as well: ghosts, that zombie assassin and manticore, dark caverns, a pale old woman wandering in the dark with a candle, and more.
Many can and probably will enjoy Ahab’s Return just on the surface pulp level, but personally, while I appreciated the skill of the pastiche, the story’s episodic nature, quick resolution of scenes, and frantic pacing all left it at a bit of a remove for me. I can’t say I found the plotting or the characters particularly compelling, save for a few exceptions.
Ford, though, isn’t content with just a surface plot, adding two other (at least) layers into the mix. One is a bit of fierce social criticism, often via Madi’s dialog, of bigotry and class exploitation. Here, for instance, is Madi speaking of the freedom he felt after surviving the Pequod and being labeled dead by Ishmael:
“I felt joyful to be alive. I could go to America a free man and make my way.”
“And then you got here,” I said.
“Yes, yes, it took me quite a while to understand. On the sea, I was royalty aboard ship for my talent with a harpoon. Here I was shoved aside, spit at, ignored, once beaten. When I heard about Seneca Village, I came here to live with other free Africans.”
This story takes an even more bittersweet bend when, after Madi is gone, Harrow tells Ahab that he’s heard from a City Hall friend that “the decision has already been made to dismantle Seneca Village to make way for a park … The entire village will be leveled … The first reason is a park that can be surrounded by wealthy communities. The second … is to rid the city of a community of free colored who own land and are gaining the right to vote.”
The bigotry isn’t solely against African-Americans (though it’s most pronounced against them), but also immigrants (the Irish and Italians especially) and “papists,” and Malbaster is heavily involved in ginning up (and ordering) violence against them:
His message was one of selfishness. ‘Life and resources and wealth are limited. They should be only for those of us who resemble those of us. All others should be driven out and/or dispatched of.’ … His childlike messages of ‘Me First,’ and a quest for the reclamation of white Protestant superiority that had never gone missing.
Ford doesn’t limit the criticism just to dialog. Whiteness permeates the Ahab’s Return, often as a symbol of inimical power, which is in itself a play on Melville’s usage of the white whale as symbol. Malbaster’s name is clearly a play on white, his skin is described as almost luminescently pale, and at our first sight of him he wears a white rose. His assassin has white hair, and Ahab (whose obsessions are labeled monstrous) has a “pale, white scar.” The weather turns dangerously cold with white snow turning the ground white and making Harrow look “white as a wedding dress.” Arabella is often in white, and Harrow rides a “great white brute” of a horse. As Madi makes note of, there’s no escaping the “white world.”
While the social criticism offers a good bit of depth and substance to the underlying pulp nature of the story, it sometimes is a bit too on the nose for me. I didn’t want less of it, more of a desire for a lighter touch.
The same held true for that second layer, which is more meta-fictional. Stories and story-crafting are often referenced in the tale, beginning of course with the fact that Ahab is known to the reader as a character from a famous novel and in this book is both a living person and a character. A twice-told character, in fact, as our writer-narrator Harrow is composing regular installments of a new serial about his and Ahab’s adventures. And the novel is regularly interrupted by stories related by Ahab, Madi, and Arabella, who herself is writing a novel. Both Harrow and Arabella aren’t simply writing stories; they also, perhaps, are crafting, or at least influencing, reality via their stories. Arabella, for instance, tells Harrow, “I’m trying to reassert myself over the character of the manticore. We need the creature on her side. I’m laying a trail of blood and drawing her back into my fiction.” And later Harrow himself thinks how, “For the first time since he entered the story, I thought of Gabriel as more than just a lumpen body draped across the back of Madi’s horse … Now suddenly he was a person and through the dim candlelight I saw the character in his face.” I liked quite a number of these references, and they added both a serious and a playful depth to the story, but similar to the social criticism, sometimes I wished for a less blunt approach.
All in all, Ford’s book is one of those novels I admire more than I enjoy. The author’s skills are readily apparently throughout, whether it be in capturing the spirit of the pulp/gothic in both content and style, the vivid evocation of a historical time and place, the use of ostensibly “historic” events to comment upon and criticize current issues/problems, or in how the novel turns about on itself to explore writing and storytelling in terms of craft and impact. Outside the complaint that the latter two are a bit heavy-handed in their execution for my liking, Ahab’s Return is a sophisticated, multi-layered work of “confabulation.” I can see why it might be nominated for awards based on its construction, but those multiple layers just didn’t, for me, accrete into a work that grabbed me strongly. Four stars seems too high for my response, but 3.5 is probably slighting the book more than it should be. I’m going with a 3.874 rating.