“No one knows for certain how the world began, whether it was made or whether it made itself from energy or love, if it was a piece of the sun or the Word of God, if it rose from kaos or E = mc
I think this is what I had in mind when, a few years ago, in a post about John Cheever’s Neglected Friends and Neighbors, I mentioned that I had given up on The Great Green “after 50-some pages of self-indulgent, meandering prose.”
Well, for some reason, I picked up The Great Green again a few weeks ago, and gave it another try. The book’s subtitle is, “A Loose Memoir of Merchant Marine Life in the Middle of the Twentieth Century with Examples of True Experience Being Turned into Fiction,” which in itself illustrates the self-indulgent and meandering problem. An average kid with no particular ambition and a tendency to follow along in others’ slipstream, Kentfield dropped out of the University of Iowa in the late 1940s bummed around the country until he wound up in New Orleans and decided to ship out as a merchant seaman.
This was not as straight-forward as he had expected. He spent a few weeks crashed with a friend while he waited, first to get his union letter, and then to get his Coast Guard rating as an ordinary seaman, and then to rise high enough in the pecking order of the Seaman’s Hall to get offered a spot on the S.S. John Ringling, a Liberty ship hauling bauxite out of Guiana.
Kentfield went to sea at a time when the life of merchant sailors was beginning to change. Although he had his share of dockside bars, drunken fights and weary prostitutes, this renegade lifestyle was transforming into a routine nearly as bourgeois as a banker’s. The hierarchy of ranks was as rigid as the military, and as an ordinary seaman, Kentfield was at the bottom of the heap.
Life on board a merchant ship, he soon learned, involved hundreds of practical details, such as a dozen or more different ropes for different purposes:
A heaving line is a small tough rope about the size of a clothesline though made of hemp, not plastic or cotton, and perhaps seventy-five feet long with a monkey fist on one end. And a monkey fist is an iron weight, usually a steel bearing, slightly smaller than a tennis ball covered with a Turk’s head, and a Turk’s head is a weaving of small rope that put sailors a long time ago in mind of a turban.
Kentfield seemed to enjoy playing the role of tour guide to the world of the merchant seaman, and The Great Green is full of explanations, from the uses of bell signals for telling time and announcing upcoming obstacles to the rules affecting seamen’s pay. As matter-of-fact as most of these passages are, I thought them by far the best part of the book.
“True Experience Being Turned into Fiction” is, perhaps, the focus of the book. Kentfield wrote several novels and published dozens of short stories that drew heavily upon his time as a seaman. He often reveals the real-life inspirations for characters in his fiction and occasionally quotes from his work to illustrate the links between them and his experiences. In this way, The Great Green shares a little in common with Katharine Brush’s This is On Me, although Kentfield lacks Brush’s light-hearted charm.
Kentfield returned to complete his degree and took breaks to start his writing career, starting with The Alchemist’s Voyage, a novel, in 1955, and The Angel and the Sailor: A Novella and Nine Stories in 1957. He continued to ship out from time to time, however–in part for the boost it seems to have given his fiction.
He finally quit in 1959, after coming to a decision as he worked on the deck of an oil tanker in Puget Sound on a rainy Christmas Day:
Standing there with the rain pouring from the end of my nose and my ears through my collar and my drawers, flowing over my boots, I, tending the valves and listening to the pumps, I came slowly to the realization that not only was I bored but that I was no longer pursuing the Possessor of All Secrets, the Father of All Gods and of the World, I was standing in the cold rain serving Standard Oil, a false god if ever there was one; so when I got back to Frisco, I quit.
Nevertheless, the sea never seems to have worked its way out of Kentfield’s system. His next novel was titled All Men are Mariners (1962), and his next short story collection, The Great Wondering Goony Bird (1963) was full of stories about sailors. And aside from contributing a novella to a collection titled, Three: 1971 and writing a coffee table book on the Pacific Coast, Kentfield only published one other book before his death in 1975: The Great Green. The last fifty pages of the book reprint three of his early short stories of sea-going life: “A Place for Lovers in the Summertime,” “Mortality,” and “Dancer’s Cricket.” According to various accounts, he struggled with alcoholism and his sexuality, and his death, from a fall from a tall seaside cliff, might have been suicide or vengeance from an angry wife.
The Great Green is very much the work of a writer struggling to master his prose and his perspective. There are some gawdawful attempts at the poetic, a fair number of anecdotes Kentfield probably rolled out to disgust or tease his friends after a few too many, and several character sketches that end up telling us more about the writer than the subject. I am glad that I stuck with it to the end, if only for the glimpses it offered into a life that seems never to have found its true reckoning.
The Great Green, by Calvin Kentfield
New York City: Dial Press, 1974