While on holiday, Henry Preston Standish slips off the stern of the SS Arabella and tumbles into the Pacific, somewhere between Hawaii and Panama. Nobody is around to witness the accident, which occurs at daybreak. As a physically resilient thirty-five-year-old, Standish initially finds it easy enough to stay afloat and is confident that his absence will be noticed before long. But the hours tick by and his hopes of rescue grow ever slimmer until, eventually, the ship disappears over the edge of the horizon and Standish is left alone to die in the “measureless sea”.
Why Gentleman Overboard, Herbert Clyde Lewis’s darkly comic tale, has remained out of print for eight decades is something of a mystery. When it was first published in 1937, Evelyn Waugh (writing in Night and Day) praised the slim novel as “thoroughly readable”. Lewis subsequently wrote three other books, including the anti-war Spring Offensive (1940), but none was well received. Curiously, Gentleman Overboard has had more success abroad, with translations in Spanish, Dutch and Hebrew. Thanks to Boiler House Press, Lewis’s long-forgotten masterwork is now afloat once more in its original language.
Brilliantly conceived and executed, Gentleman Overboard unfolds as a wry study of extremity and isolation. No sooner is Standish in the water than he congratulates himself on his career as a Wall Street stockbroker and self-importantly imagines how his story might be told once he is rescued. Yale-educated and happily married, he thinks of himself above all else as a gentleman. His resolve to uphold this image lasts for several long hours (“the Standishes were not the suicide kind”), but when the sun goes down his stoicism deserts him. In taut, poetic prose, Lewis communicates the wretchedness of Standish’s predicament: “It was night already; the dim stars were out, the evening stars, and a blue shadow crept over this dismal world”.
Standish is the embodiment of an American ideal of respectability and, we are told, “one of the world’s most boring men”. He wears conservative business suits at all times. (“He felt he was not the man for slacks or outlandish sports costumes.”) The novel is full of waspish social comedy. The Arabella’s small group of passengers is vividly sketched, from the “Yankee” farmer Nat Adams who exhibits his new set of false teeth “proudly and at the slightest provocation”, to the Christian missionaries Mr and Mrs Brown, who are pious to the point of being smug. Once the passengers finally realize that Standish is missing, they conclude that he must have committed suicide.
It may be that Lewis had in mind the example of the American poet Hart Crane, who in 1932 jumped to his death from a ship in the Gulf of Mexico. Lewis was no less tragic a figure. In his scholarly afterword, Brad Bigelow relates how the author died alone in New York in 1950, at the age of forty-one. The heart attack that killed Lewis was a complication of his alcoholism and, it is suggested, the threat of making the Hollywood Blacklist. (An FBI informant had identified him as a member of the American Communist Party.) Conceivably, Lewis used alcohol to numb a sense of failure: having toiled for years as a reporter, he had high hopes of becoming a successful novelist, but he struggled constantly with debts, and ended his days in a squalid Greenwich Village hotel. As with Standish, his friends wondered if he had taken his own life.
Gentleman Overboard strains the reader’s credulity throughout. The Pacific is calm, warm and shark-free, yet to remain so long alive and so clear-headed still seems a physical impossibility. Not that this matters. The novel was conceived in a spirit of absurdist fantasy; in some ways it looks forward to the discomfiting philosophical comedy of Samuel Beckett. Before he drowns, Standish is given ample time to reflect on the meaning of life, hunger and thirst. “Strange that he should be learning so much about life at a time when he did not really know whether he was living or dead.” His obsession with his own “high-breeding” and the social background of his fellow passengers comes to nothing as the sea sucks him under. As George Szirtes writes in his introduction, “being a gentleman doesn’t always help”.
This review first appeared in the 4 MArch 2022 Times Literary Supplement.