On Ian McGuire's "The North Water": a Revisionist "Moby Dick," With Echoes of "Blood Meridian" and "The Revenant"

So last week I had the gripping-if-ghastly reading experience of zooming through Ian McGuire’s new novel, The North Water. I’ll try to be circumspect in my comments here so as not to spoil the reading “fun” for others, as I do heartily recommend it. Simply put, I’d rank it as one of the best new novels I’ve read in the last few years. It’s a literary adventure tale of sorts, not for the faint of heart. At times I’m sure the gore would be over the top, or too much, for some readers, but eventually I think the power and eccentricity of the language is more important than the blood, pus, and other bodily fluids that leak or gush about on one page or another. You could certainly label it “Tarantinoesque,” but it’s smarter than Tarantino’s films, and the gore has more seriousness to it—more shocking than, say, humorous, as some of the scenes in Django Unchained (2012) are downright funny, not particularly thoughtful.

The obvious comparison is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). The story unfolds in 1857-59, and the point is made repeatedly that it’s the end of the whaling era, which figures into the plot dynamics. There’s a good vs. evil dynamic with the characters of Patrick Sumner vs. Henry Drax, although Drax is not the maniacal captain a la Moby Dick’s Ahab, and Sumner is ultimately both more fallen and resourceful than Ishmael. The North Water is less philosophical, shorter, and tighter than Moby Dick, and obviously is a child of the 21st century, as Melville’s masterpiece is a child of the 19th century. Even though Queequeg and Ishmael sleep together at their first meeting, and become bosom buddies, Melville is hesitant to write about homosexuality, which plays a bit part in the plot of The North Water. Both novels have a “mythic” feel to them, and as far as what’s realistic or not, I’d give Melville more credit there, for having actually been a sailor on a whaling ship in that era. To me that doesn’t matter. The North Water isn’t necessarily trying to be realistic, and the one work of literature that figures prominently in the background of the story is The Iliad, and that touchstone of myth is telling.
Other comparisons are to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985) and the recent Leo DiCaprio film, The Revenant (2015).  The Sumner/Drax dynamic corresponds to the Hugh Glass/Fitzgerald of The Revenant, with Drax being the implacable force of blunt trauma, and Sumner being the more reflective and wronged party in this death dance. What sets The North Water apart is its archaic, elaborate language, which includes some knife-edge descriptions of the frozen Arctic seas. In that respect it more closely resembles McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is famous for its Satanic character Judge Holden, but which also owes much of its power to its baroque language and the fantastic descriptions of the desert wild lands of Mexico and the Southwest.

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