The Navigator of New York

Wayne Johnston

Read January 2006

Historical fiction is a funny thing. Too much history and the fictional enterprise has nowhere to go; too much fiction and the student of history becomes queasy. Safest, perhaps, to take on minor historical characters and events; safe, but not challenging. Johnston, on the other hand, takes on more than a handful: the controversy between Robert Peary and Frederick Cook itself. Can he handle it?

The story is told through Devlin Stead, a young boy from Newfoundland who becomes Cook's assistant. Stead eventually comes to live with Cook in New York, intending to accompany Cook on northward exploration. The first hundred pages—literally—are gripping and unforgettable. At that point, however, Johnston overplays it. I find quotations disruptive, and quoted letters even more so; when Johnston indulges in a multi-page letter to sew up corners, you realize the writer has lost control of his plot.

Once Stead joins Cook, Peary becomes a regular presence, but often just that: a presence, an obsession really, of Cook and then of Stead's. The Peary of these pages is a dark, cruel man, a despicable human, and Cook an aggrieved and wronged figure. The book works this angle for many more pages than it should, before the kind of conclusion that book jacket blurb writers like to call ``stunning''. It is that, but in the process, I think, needlessly involves a promising novel in a pitched historical battle with which it needed have no stake.

Johnston's writing can and does sparkle. He offers a delectable portrait of a growing New York, a city that still hasn't headed north of Central Park, a city whose central island still had uncultivated land and independent villages. He places Cook over in Brooklyn, a clever device that enables Stead (and us with him) to traverse the Brooklyn Bridge, evoking its cathedral feel and monumental presence. Johnston portrays the immigrants flocking off the boats, but tells us not to pity them; he sees and conveys a vision of energy and newness that infects New York even today.

These sparkles cannot, however, make up for more basic flaws. This is a talking book: flipping through it, I see an ocean of quotation marks. People are constantly talking, but talking in ways in which I don't think people ever talked. The book is written in Stead's voice, looking back over his past, but in a tone that belies Stead's relative lack of formal education, thereby putting the reader in conflict. Most people are either leaden or hollow; but of Cook, especially, we learn too much. Some real episodes (such as Cook's purported expedition to Mt. McKinley) are interspersed here, almost to fill time to build up to the dramatic finish. It just doesn't hang together.

Perhaps my real problem with this book is in not understanding the parameters of historical fiction. I confess I like my fiction ``clean'': I like my history too, and don't want to the two intertwined because I often have trouble making the distinction later. (This personal peculiarity similarly makes it difficult for me to read science fiction.) This much should not be held against Johnston's book, but the other criticisms, I think, fairly can. On the other hand, we cannot fault him on ambition or talent.

Thanks to Lee Millward for suggesting this book.