Henry Preston Standish slips on a grease spot aboard the S. S. Arabella sailing from Honolulu to Panama City at 5 a.m. in the morning. He clumsily falls into the Pacific Ocean. No one is around to see the accident. In fact, the only possible witness could be the cook in the kitchen, whom he passed on his way to his favorite morning spot in the ship’s hull, a secluded opening perfect to witness the sunrise. It also happens to be the spot where the cook throws his leftovers into the ocean, hence the grease spot.
The cook, however, lacks awareness beyond his own small world of self, and it’s too early for the other eight passengers on this freighter to be up and on deck. Further, Standish is too socially polished to even think of being so base as to rave and thrash and yell for help: “The Standishes were not shouters.” This well-bred New York businessman in the prime of his life, husband to a devoted wife, and father of two, floats for the duration of Gentleman Overboard, a concurrently alarming and humorous mid-20th century novel. Will someone notice Standish is missing?
I say “alarming,” but that’s not as much about Standish as us, reading with the unnerving image of a man treading water without shore in sight and the Arabella disappearing into the horizon. Occasionally, Standish feels despair, but it dissolves as quickly as it arrives. He’s too preoccupied with thoughts of the grand tale of survival that he’ll tell his wife and children, and how he’ll eclipse his partners at the brokerage firm when he’s distinguished as a man who survived the elements. He feels “merry,” experiencing an adventure, sure the Arabella will turn around and come to his rescue. Indeed, he’s the consummate refined man more concerned with how he’ll be perceived, any negative thoughts more about shame than fear.
Men of Henry Preston Standish’s class did not go around falling off ships in the middle of the ocean; it just was not done, that was all. It was a stupid, childish, unmannerly thing to do, and if there had been anybody’s pardon to beg, Standish would have begged it.
Author Herbert Clyde Lewis amplifies the dry humor of Standish’s nature in concert with his predicament, creating pitch perfect tragicomedy. It’s laughably absurd, what with Standish’s ability to tread water and float through an entire day without physical suffering, let alone his obsessive gentlemanly concerns. Lewis flawlessly masters this absurdity, luring us into this fretful and seemingly hopeless event, and keeping us there, with the combined seriousness and levity. He’s so good at it, we’re hooked, or should I say sunk?
We’re in the exact space Lewis wants us, smack in the middle of immeasurable isolation and loneliness, a concept he admirably explores with his abandoned protagonist. Lewis got the idea in 1936, while standing on the roof of his New York apartment. We learn from the book’s epilogue that when he looked down to the street, Lewis wondered about falling and the moments in the space between the security on the roof and the finality of the street below. “The mental gap,” he called it. Lewis worked as a newspaper reporter. He published Gentleman Overboard in 1937. He wrote two more novels. He struggled in his career, moving about quite a bit, becoming separated from his wife and children, and dying alone in a New York City hotel in 1950, after being blacklisted as a suspected Hollywood Communist. In a way, he and his career fell into that space he explored with Standish, that gap, untethered and alone by his own miscalculations and chance decisions.
Standish suffered a nervous “vague unrest,” which prompted a need for time alone. That’s what put him on the solo sailing trip, a retreat of sorts, to restore his spirit. Now, potentially drowning, he ponders the intensity of the sun as it moves across the sky and a school of passing porpoises; and he imagines the absence of himself in the world (“a void in the elevator boy’s pocket next Christmas, a void in the telephone book, a void on the office stationery”). Lewis assures us “such a well-bred man … could not go insane,” but he also makes clear that Standish isn’t a fool. All the places he goes inside his head, the kaleidoscopic hope, worry, and self-interest, represent the universal person caught by surprise with the thief’s arrival.
By the time the passengers and crew realize Standish is missing, our charming protagonist is crying out to be heard by someone, anyone, with tears falling down his face. He comes to terms with his likely fate, and Lewis tips his hat to that moment on the roof as Standish thinks “all deaths, including the few seconds of falling off a roof, were singularly and completely lonely; a man thought only about himself at the very end.”
About the book: Gentleman Overboard is published by Boiler House Press in their new Recovered Books series. You can read more about the series here. You’ll also find information about Brad Bigelow, who wrote the novel’s epilogue. He’s the founder of the popular Neglected Books website, “where forgotten books are remembered.” If you’re interested in reserving a library copy, and it’s not in the catalogue of your local library, in Ohio it’s available via OhioLINK. Ask your local reference librarian for assistance (if you can’t find the link on the search page of your library’s website).