Rite of Passage on a Square-Rigger : FIRE DOWN BELOW <i> by William Golding (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $17.95; 313 pp.)</i>


“Fire Down Below” is the last leg of a voyage undertaken in “Rites of Passage” (1980), which won the Booker prize, and continued in “Close Quarters” (1987). Told in a late 18th-Century epistolary pastiche, it is the story of a journey around the Horn to Australia, of storms, an odd lot of passengers, dangers lurking in the standing rigging, a command divided by differing views of man’s proper function.

It is also the story of young Lord Talbot’s rites of passage. However, the most evident sea changes in his development occurred in the first two volumes of this fine trilogy, so that in “Fire” he grows relatively little in psychology and demeanor with the result that his crossing into manhood seems made on auto-pilot, in default mode. Once his liminal sea passage is behind him, his reincorporation into society has a summary quality about it. At the novel’s close, he debarks, finds that his love for Miss Chumley is reciprocated, risks his life for a friend, and discovers that he has been shorn by death of his godfather protector and is on his own, though he inherits a bacon-saving seat in Parliament.

“Fire” opens ominously with the sailing master, Mr. Smiles, proclaiming, “It is a time for dying.” Of course it is. It always is, though it would seem here that the time is momentarily past--Talbot’s cabin has just been repainted because a man named Colley had willed himself to death there. A fragment of poor Wheeler’s skull is still embedded in the overheads, though it fails as a memento mori. Talbot picks at it ineffectually, without either loosening or reflecting upon it. The reader too is adrift, for in “Fire,” Wheeler and Colley are ciphers, ineffectual ghosts. Omens become non sequiturs. Is lugubrious Smiles a bad joke? What is Talbot thinking about? Significance slips through the uncaulked cracks.

It is a tonal problem. Talbot starts out silly but well-meaning and makes his passage without a clue. But the reader has to contend with the writer’s clash of personal and adopted styles. Golding’s natural posture, influenced by the logic of Aeschylean tragedy, is laden with portents and symbols; but his adopted manner, from the serio-comic conventions of the 18th Century, depends upon ironic allegory. We meet an array of names to have made Frederick Marryat or Tobias Smollett jealous: Smiles; Cumbershum; Askew, the gunner; Summers; Pettiman, a reformer; Brocklebank ( brock : skunk, evil smelling), who is shunned; and Colley, an enthusiastic if unleashed pup, as it turns out. But Golding’s momentousness confounds the ironic jollity drawn from less eschatological models, turning Smollett’s sense of the ridiculous into Melvillean jocularity without achieving the expansive swagger that saves “Moby Dick.”


The title shares these qualities. The foremast has split its shoe, come upstepped, and threatens to punch a hole in the hull. The cure rekindles the battle of ancients and moderns. Summers, an old-line seaman employs a traditional system of cables to hold it in place. His theoretical second proposes to mend the shoe by using the calculated contractions of a red-hot metal boot. As the steel burns through the mast’s foot, the title becomes an omen. But the repair works, the ship picks up speed. The reader waits and wonders, where there’s smoke no longer, can there be fire? And then Mr. Pettiman, speaking of his mission of reform, says, “Imagine our caravan, we, a fire down below here--sparks of the Absolute--matching the fire up there.” The reader relaxes. The ship arrives safely, is decommissioned, and the fire down below erupts, kills Summers, now its captain at Talbot’s insistence. Though the moderns won a round, the gods won the fight, but Summers, commoner, believer and good soldier, pays the price--pays it as well for Lord Talbot’s growth--what one might call a class act, noblesse inflige .

It helps to know from the previous volumes (which rollick rather more) that Brocklebank, who pretends to be a lithographer, is a male bawd and flatulent and that his putative daughter Zenobia is more pute than daughter. It also helps to know that Talbot once accosted her and, busy on that front, failed to witness Colley’s downfall. Colley, ridiculed as a parson of lower-class origins, was led into drunkenness one day, and in his elevation fellated a seaman, knew joy for a brief moment, then knew shame, retired to his cabin and willed himself to death. The seaman in question had bragged of “getting a chew off a parson,” so Summers, protector and moralist, put some tobacco in the cabin in order to mislead Talbot. It is only through a mysteriously discovered diary, that 18th-Century device, that Talbot learns the truth.

The trilogy was born out of Golding’s love of the sea and his curiosity about medically mysterious literary deaths--Clarissa’s from shame, for example. He located such a death in the perhaps reality of a life of Wellington: In 1796, after three days at sea, a clergyman involved himself in a debauch, retired in shame and horror to his cabin, refused sustenance and company, even Wellington’s, and expired. It is in that image and its moment in history that Golding found his trilogy’s manner, language, its curious indeterminacy.