First published in 1937, one of three novels written by Herbert Clyde Lewis before he was ruined by the McCarthy witch hunts and “died alone in a New York hotel in 1950”, Gentleman Overboard is a beautifully little novel that does not deserve to have been forgotten as it has – and which is, of course, ripe for reissue and reinvestigation.
What we have here is the story, in essence, of a gentleman who falls overboard. Henry Preston Standish is a pleasant sort, we learn, who unfortunately slips on a puddle of grease and tumbles from his perch in The Arabella down into the sea.
“There was no question of this being a terrific adventure; here he was, a broker of ordinary strength and talents, matching his wits against the elements. Even though the elements were inclined to be peaceful this was tremendously exciting.”
Over the course of 130 or so pages, we spend time with Henry in the water and learn something of his life (he’s married to Olivia, they have children, he’s a partner in a firm of long standing, he’s considered to be doing well) and also his predicament (driven by a curious sort of restlessness, he has set off on a holiday on his own to sort himself out), outside of the fact that he is, you know, in the middle of the sea without any hope of rescue.
“It was so stupid, so absolutely without reason or precedent, so out of place for a man of his position! For a while Standish gnashed his teeth in an impotent rage.”
We also spend time aboard The Arabella itself, witnessing the minor calamities and every day confusions that prevent the absence of Henry Preston Standish from being discovered sooner: the child who normally makes a beeline for Henry is having a tantrum and is confined to his room for the morning, the cook who makes poached eggs for Henry and no one else thinks nothing of throwing the poached eggs away, the woman who enjoys spending time with Henry by the pool is distracted by a swimming lesson. And on and on it goes, and further and further apart are the boat and Henry.
“And he knew now there was nothing quite so horrible as being the last man in a flat world, alone in the precise centre of a maddening circle.”
All told, Gentleman Overboard is a bewitching novel, a true gem, rich with the kind of soulful bitter-sweetness you’d find in later period Brautigan (I’m thinking something like So The Wind Won’t Blow It All away). It’s tender, it’s well-written, it’s affecting, and it’ll sweep you up for the duration (we read it in a single sitting, one of those “just one more chapter” occasions in which you’ve suddenly read an entire book over the course of an evening).
Any Cop?: Thanks to Boiler House Press for reissuing it. Here’s hope they reissue Herbert Clyde Lewis’ other books (and that this enjoys a similar boost to Stoner!)