Four men meet on a merchant ship in 1914. The ship is rammed by a passenger liner. Each man falls from the sinking wreck into war-confused Prussia, wandering. Some of the men meet again. One of them meets the wealthy owner of the ship, a dandy. This, more or less, is the thin plot of The Yellow Sailor, but don't think for a moment that the book doesn't go out on a limb. With thrumming narrative rhythm, the novel offers a raw, wretched, and erotic side of life not often depicted in official culture or the polite books of Oprah's list. With a kind of impressionistic, cinematic style that makes constant quick cuts in time and place, novelist Weiner takes risks that other writers don't, or can't.
Not really about World War I, and not wholly about its four main characters either, this work dispenses with fictional conventions like detailed plot and characters who "grow" to supply the reader with a rich, disturbing vision of the world, both as it existed in the previous century and, by extrapolation, as it is now. Absent is the kind of transparent historical reportage you might expect of a novel set during wartime (cf. The Good Soldier, one more?). Instead, The Yellow Sailor (the name of the ship where the main characters, Karl, Alois, Nicholas, and Jacek meet) offers innumerable Bosch-like detail of the desperate lives of poor folk during wartime and their oddities and perversions. The book's details accrue to more than the sum of it parts; glossy, freakish cameo characters jump out of the work, then disappear into its roiling surface.
The fact that a contemporary Western author chooses to set his work in hardscrabble rural Ukrainian and Bavarian villages, industrial German cities, and Polish shtetls is interesting and disjointing in itself. Somewhere, in the lines of this book's gritty imagery, Weiner seems to be telling us that no matter how much money you have or what era you live in, desperation is the basic state of affairs. Our era's weird, jumpy, entrepreneurial landscape of shopping malls, feverish marketing campaigns, and jolly-rolling sports vehicles certainly doesn't exempt us from such desperation.
Weiner, who wrote the painful and dark-textured The Museum of Love (1995), takes the WWI period and sets it behind his characters, like a thick scrim. With the Great War's gore-sticky impact affecting each paragraph, he jaggedly traces the characters' movements, though there is little sense to their wanderings. The four men are neither noble heroes nor victimized underdogs: Each meet ignorance, violence, and intimacy in the world and respond clumsily, sometimes stupidly, sometimes understandably. Conversations are soaked in a liquor of dark theatric and erotic energy. Men are crowded tableside, mingling with coarse laughter, jokes, odorous food, and sensuality.
"Poles, Belgians, Mecklenburgers, Pomeranians, Silesians, spoke mix-German. White slave transporters looked for factors girls. A composer from the Great Fleet strolled drunkenly into a post. Austrian schillings, English pounds, rubles, guilders, kronen, reischsmarks, and Belgian francs circulated. Alois toasted. To the Kaiser!' The Dach brothers drank. They put their arms around each other. They sang.
It would be reductive to call The Yellow Sailor "gay fiction," but like The Museum of Love, its themes hover around male-male bonds. Except for one brief sex scene and other scenes involving the wealthy and openly gay ship owner, Julius Bernai, Weiner usually depicts male-male interest and desire from oblique, indirect angles. The approach is interesting and complicated, and echoes the mute way the characters apprehend their own desires. But like the world depicted here, the characters' desires are volatile and inconstant in general (gay Bernai winds up stricken with love for a woman; a Polish boy murders the young girl he woos, drags her coffin through the mountains, then joins the military). Relationships are like scantly tasted silver mirages that turn to powdered rust; characters are not knowable or predictable. But readers may feel release and liberation in sharing Weiner's aching observations and vision of life.
Publishers Weekly, with its usual depth and insight, called The Yellow Sailor "murky," with a "lack of narrative coherence." Interpret this to mean the book is innovative. I was able to follow its progress and economical scenes without difficulty, and found its dense depiction of central European cultural politics fascinating. These pages almost smell of the briny esculence of Munich hotel rooms, of mossy, mildewed cabins in the Harz Mountains. The narrative's short, rolling sentences can convey a sense of emotional numbness or shock:
"The market was crowded. Poles ate doughnuts. Carnival masks moved down Krakowa Street: Karawal, Death, Marzanna. A man sold a pig in a barrel of honey. A brass band played. Stall sellers yelled. 'Beautiful milk!' 'Hot ham!' 'Little buns!' An old man walked forward but leaned backward: Polish wodka. Polish paramilitary came by. 'Poland!' They yelled at the Germans. 'A free country!'"
The book is built upon thick biers of dialogue, and the sound of European languages: German, Polish, Silensic, Yiddish English, French. Weiner's ear finds brutish music in shouted obscenities and insults; his timing is Swiss precision. These gifts are apparent in long dialogues that trim away all but the strongest, most muscled words, leaving the reader with verbal exchanges that are almost "pure" (a condition which, The Yellow Sailor seems to argue through its cacaphony of cultures, does not exist).
Its imagery of bunkers of sweating, swearing men, stinky and violent, alongside the descriptions of the spoiled and privileged Bernai, point to the ghastly gap between wealth and poverty. The fact that Bernai breaks down at book's end from loving a woman (the fiance´e of a doctor he tries to seduce), is a wonderful choice, and expresses the enormous messiness of human experience--the fact that labels of sexuality can never adequately contain or describe our lives. Weiner also has the savvy to suggest that sexuality, for many people, is subservient to convenience, economic privilege, and the vagaries of cultural politics.
Like much good fiction, The Yellow Sailor is cruel. I certainly would avoid reading it while hunkering down to a meal of rotini and sauce. Instead, read it in one long, fitful draught before bed; its pungent imagery will linger in your mind for a long time.