If you have ever been tempted to run away to sea, then this is the book for you. Derived from transcripts of interviews, this nonfiction book gives you the scoop on what it's like to work as a merchant seaman. Ronnie, the narrator, is the real deal: a 40-year veteran, he's sailed everywhere, including around the world twice. Thanks to Robert Jacoby, we get to listen in as Ronnie recounts some of his adventures, such as his attempt to bring a baboon on the ship, and describes the colorful characters he's met, like Shanghai Jane who coerces sailors into accepting runs they don't want, Omar Sharif who served Ronnie in the bar Sharif owned in Aqaba, and Greg Cousins who was on the Exxon Valdez during the spill.
The dangers aren't always the ones you expect. In Saigon, after unloading ammunition during the Vietnam War, Ronnie goes to a bar run by an Australian that's a “shack with a cooler in it.” To get to the head, he has to go out through the back, with the owner telling him to “‘say hello to the alligator.'” “I walk through these curtains, and I see these boards . . . It's a swamp back there. He just piled the beer cans up, and then he put boards across the top . . . You come back here drunk and just keep walking and they'll never see you again.”
As he travels around the world Ronnie encounters capitalist countries becoming communist and communist countries becoming capitalist, which gives him a healthy skepticism for what he calls “isms”. He describes being in a typhoon near the Philippines which he says is “like driving in a bad storm. You're scared, but you're driving in it. We don't have the luxury of pulling over. There's no pulling over to the Howard Johnson's and get a room or a cup of coffee and wait the storm out.”
I've never been to sea and Ronnie's idea of the perfect life isn't mine, but I sure know about wanting to be free. For me that means free to create my own life. For him, it means not settling down. Here's his take on his first trip, to Belgium and Germany: “I mean, it was total freedom. And there was no recrimination. Like an old girlfriend of mine once told me, ‘You know, you don't try hard enough.' I said, “Well, I don't feel like trying at all.'. . . . It was an opening to a career I could see I could really adjust to.”
I met Robert Jacoby at a writer's conference and was intrigued by his description of this book. As a writer, I'm most fascinated by the voice. Just taping someone talking doesn't usually yield interesting prose, but Ronnie is a real storyteller, giving just the right amount of detail about life aboard ship or a person's history.
I'm also interested in the structure of the book. It is no easy task to organise real-world events into the kind of narrative we are used to reading. Jacoby structures the story chronologically, with separate chapters for separate ships, or sometimes separate runs on the same ship. I was intrigued by how Ronnie's attitudes changed as he grew older and how they stayed the same.
For me, this was not a book to read straight through, but rather one to dip into and read a bit at a time. I found it an especially welcome relief after a long day at the office when the idea of throwing it all up and running off to sea suddenly seems like the most brilliant idea in the world.