When I was in the Navy, I knew a lot of drunken sailors: men who drank for the joy of being drunk, men who drank with the desperation of characters out of a Faulkner novel, and men who drank for a reprieve from the inflexible discipline that dogs those foolish enough to seek their fortune on the high seas.
But I never knew anyone who drank like McGlue, the eponymous hero of Ottessa Moshfegh's debut, "McGlue," a strange and beautiful novella released by Fence Books.
McGlue is a 19th century sailor, a deck seaman of dubious skill, who wants one thing and one thing only: a bottle. "I wake up mornings with my head in a vice. The only solution is to drink again. That makes me almost jolly. It does wonders in the morning to take my mind of the pain and pressure. I can use my eyes after that first drink, I remember how to line up my feet and walk, loosen my jaw, tell someone to get out of my way."
McGlue's pursuit of intoxication is so single-minded that he prefers drink over the company of women. In a scene that reads like a parody of the Molly Bloom sequence in James Joyce's "Ulysses," McGlue avoids the amorous attention of a barmaid with a "bosom like sour milk" by tying her to a balcony railing and drinking until sunrise.
McGlue's love of spirits has landed him in dire straits. While ashore in Zanzibar he is accused of murdering a shipmate named Johnson who, like McGlue, hails from Salem, Mass. They were unlikely friends — and perhaps more than friends — before they set sail together and, because of their strange association and the wealth and prestige of Johnson's family, McGlue is banished below decks and shipped back to America.
In the darkness of the hold, McGlue attempts to makes sense of that terrible night. "All my mind does now is it spins around something I'd have sooner forgotten."
When the ship reaches Salem, McGlue is thrown in prison, where his lawyer advises him to make a complete confession. Complicating matters is "a break to his skull" that McGlue suffered while leaping from a train that he keeps re-injuring.
"The floor and ceiling switch places and the earth quakes. A moment later the guard comes down across my face fist-first: 'Shut it!' he shouts into my ear. I quit screaming. I've been screaming."
Prompted by his lawyer's insistence to remember everything he can about the night Johnson was killed, McGlue's memories mingle and run together. Sometimes McGlue forgets that Johnson is dead. Sometimes Johnson comes to visit him in his cell.
The entire plot boils down to a line in a sea shanty: What should we do with the drunken sailor? Is McGlue a heartless drunk with no regard for others, or is his drinking a byproduct of his horrific head injury? Was McGlue using Johnson to fund his drinking adventures, or is there more to their friendship than clinking bottles and visiting whorehouses?
With prose that mirrors McGlue's muddled memories and gallows gallantry, Moshfegh opens a window into a world that no longer exists with stunning immediacy. Her powerful sentences and peculiar syntax animate the sailor's plight and dissolve the distance when men like Melville and McGlue walked the deck. Those days have gone, but Moshfegh's debut heralds the arrival of an unforgettable new American voice.
Ruland is the author of "Forest of Fortune."
Fence: 144 pp., $15.95 paper