Underground Reading: Cruise by Peter Baker
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Peter Baker's Cruise (1967) is a floating morality play. Against the background of a lovely Mediterranean cruise, the audience is treated to the sexual shenanigans (and their ultimate repercussions) of the upper- and middle-class passengers.
The cover shown (right) is from the 1969 Pan printing. It is undoubtedly the best part of the book.
Cruise's omniscient narrator follows a dozen or so people - mostly first class passengers and the senior crew. The Captain is on his last voyage before retirement. A grieving Widow is looking for distractions. Her teenage son is just... looking. An elderly British lord is trying to please his trophy wife. The trophy Wife is equally engaged trying to please herself.
A few minor characters also get involved: a popular author (the matrony battleship type), a flamboyantly homosexual young man (obsessed with sailors and the theatre - groundbreaking!) and other forgettable stereotypes.
As all the characters interact and mingle in a thousand different ways of the course of Cruise, one thing becomes abundantly clear: they're all utterly reprehensible. In the few cases where they're at least "moral" (like the dim-witted widow and her naive son), they're annoying as hell. This is a ship in dire need of an iceberg.
Probably the most irritating is David Welch, the ship's Chief Officer. He's been recently promoted, largely due to his relationship with a nymphomaniac duchess. This doesn't stop him from treating her badly (although she does deserve it) and shagging everyone else he can get his paws on (they don't deserve it). Personally and professionally, he's an abrasive leech. As a side character, he would make an acceptable foil. As the nominal protagonist, he's painful.
Richard, the Grieving Widow's naive teenage son, is painful in a completely different way. He's a sheltered kid, with a penchant for rugby and referring to his mother as "Dearest" (is this a 1960's thing? It feels like this should make spines-crawl in all eras.) His stilted internal monologue is a constant query about whether he's going to still be boring at age 40 (answer: yes). Although he contemplates doing interesting things (e.g. a Turkish prostitute and/or his roommate, John), he never actually goes through with them. Never has so much wibbling produced so little action. For a studly 18 year old in a semi-pornographic novel, he doesn't actually get up to very much.
And that's hit the nail on the head: Cruise really doesn't get up to very much. Despite the promising cover and steamy blurbs, there's not a lot of co-ed (or single-sex) wrestling. And what there is takes place in that intentionally poetic "artsy" style that involves a lot of random, unpunctuated words in an attempt at erotic stream of consciousness.
The novel's eventual resolution is no more than a damp squib. Returning to the morality play concept, everyone vaguely gets what they deserve, which is the soulless continuation of their boring, fruitless existence. It is no small (nor, I hope, unintentional) irony that the only character to change her life is the one that chooses to end it.