Saturday, April 23, 2011

Book Review – Into My Father’s Wake by Eric Best

I somehow appear on an email list of book reviewers and was asked to review this book. For those of you who prefer brevity: “Great Book!”

For those of you with a little more time for detail, here goes:

Into My Father’s Wake, by Eric Best, is the story of a 5000 mile solo journey from San Francisco to Hawaii, round trip, aboard a 47’ ketch. But it is no simple sailing adventure. If it were, the reader might agree with Best’s father’s devastating response to the idea of writing it, “Why would anyone want to read a book about sailing alone to Hawaii and back. Lots of people sail to Hawaii.” Instead, Best follows the advice from an ironically non-literary and non-sailing source, a Hawaiian business man: “Give a chronological story of your fears. Ask yourself the most personal questions and try to answer them. People will listen to that.”

So Into My Father’s Wake is also a personal story. It is about the anxieties of an insufficiently experienced sailor who struggles with a lonely and sometimes overwhelming sea voyage. As the title suggests, it is also about the author’s hate/love relationship with his abusive father. It depicts a loving relationship with a young daughter, and it describes Best’s attempts to understand himself through psychotherapy. It bemoans writing aspirations that have been undermined by Best’s father. It touches on failed marriages. It reviews the effects of alcoholism on human behavior. It deals with solitude. And in the end, it reveals how coming to terms with the vast, indifferent, and all powerful ocean helps Best begin to come to terms with his father and most everything else.

Although it is a rich and complex book, the basic organization is quite straightforward. The chronological story of the sailing trip is the backbone that supports everything else. Episodes from his personal life are revealed in non-linear bits and pieces as they are remembered, pondered, and re-experienced by a solo sailor. The reader puts together enough details to understand the plot of the personal stories while more importantly sharing the author’s emotional experience of them. The approach is at times confusing or challenging to the reader, but upon reflection, it is a remarkably insightful and truthful depiction of how events are processed and reprocessed, particularly when we have a good amount of time to be alone with our thoughts.

The sound narrative structure that successfully integrates the broad range of subject matter in this book is evidence of a sophisticated and skilled writer. My false first impression from the title (and the fact that I was asked to review this book on a sailing blog) was that it would be a mixture of adventure and pop psychology told by a non-professional author wannabe. Boy, was that wrong! Only a few pages in, I was blown away by a literary and linguistic sophistication that I don’t seem to find lately. (Turns out Best went to Stanford Writer’s school and was a career journalist.) I don’t know if the rich, descriptive, and often poetic language in this book works for all readers nowadays, but it certainly works for me. A sample:

Nothing had ever seemed more vast and irrevocable to me than to be in the ocean at night, alone with her sounds and concealed intentions. Some ancient balance of flesh and water and electricity, deep legacies of evolution, would absorb signals unknown to science. To sail across vast ocean reaches would be to rearrange myself from the inside and realign to the universe.

Another of the book’s outstanding qualities aside from the richness of language, is the way it depicts a relentless undercurrent of uncertainty. I think this feeling is more universal than we care to admit and represents a part of us that is not comfortable to examine. Though he is ultimately a successful solo sailor, Best honestly and eloquently reveals his fear of massive freighters in the night, potentially unmanageable weather, irreparable boat breakdowns, and inadequate navigational skills that leave him frequently not knowing where he is. Similarly, he grapples with perceived personal inadequacies, his search for understanding through psychotherapy, the lasting impact of his father on his character, and most importantly, his own contradictory feelings toward his father.

As a story of the effects of an abusive parent, this is a powerful one. The gradual resurfacing of fragmented remembrances is a model for the way the dysfunctional relationship infuses the personality of Best and weaves its way into many aspects of his life. Despite a long pattern of evening alcoholic rages and regular beatings with a rubber hose, Best maintains an unbreakable bond with the man who taught him to sail and love sailing. But it is a severely damaged relationship with conflicts that seemingly cannot be resolved. Without time alone in the ocean, Best says he could not have come to this realization:

A child cannot reconcile violence at the hands of one who is supposed to love him, and whom he loves without condition….It cannot make sense to the child unless he is deserving of the violence and the pain an the anger behind it. How could that be?

Understanding the contradictions does not resolve them. Only a process of forgiveness and a Zen-like acceptance of things as they are, begun in the middle of the Pacific, help Best acknowledge his father as a flawed man driven by his own demons to commit despicable acts.

One of the best things that can be said about a book is that the reader finds meaningful personal connections or insights in it. In that respect, this book is completely successful with this reader. Many of us carry baggage and insecurities similar to Best’s in some way, and his struggles mirror some of our own. Best’s candidness and his insight challenge us to be as honest with our own issues. Many of us also identify with his search for the path that leads to letting go. At the mercy of an endless, almighty ocean, Eric Best begins to find his way.

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