In the mid-1860’s, America is tearing itself apart in a civil war. To young Brendan Kane, a New Englander, even war is more appealing than the boredom of his staid home life. An only child, Brendan is seduced but soon revolted by the excess of human carnage and abominable conditions of life as a soldier. In the dark of night, he deserts the Union Army, fleeing north. In New York, Kane finds himself in the middle of the tumultuous Draft Riots, carried along by the violent enthusiasm of the crowd.
In the most fateful decision of his young life, Brendan joins an Arctic voyage of indeterminate length on the Narthex. His fellow crewmembers are as odd an assortment as any to be found at the time, men without roots or money, a raggedy bunch who seize on the opportunity for adventure and the security of regular meals and a place to sleep. Brendan Kane fits in easily with this group, except for Dr. Architeuthis, the attending physician who is constantly testing conditions to mathematically determine the direction of their journey. The doctor takes a liking to Kane and uses him frequently as his assistant. But Kane is most attracted to Aziz, a three-handed Arab, who stays below deck, stoking the boiler. As the dangers and rigors of the journey increase, it is Aziz to whom Kane turns for comfort.
The men are unsure of the goal of their adventure, enduring patiently until the owner of the expedition, Mr. West, confides that they are seeking “ a paradise in the heart of the Arctic” where they will make their fortunes, a virtual Garden of Eden suggested in West’s family journal as translated by Aziz. In the expeditionary spirit of the day, the men suffer the extreme harshness and violent nature of the weather through the light-filled Arctic summer and black Arctic winter. Their enthusiasm and endurance is indicative of the hardy, if foolish, seafaring men of the age; however, with any contest of man against nature, the deck is stacked.
Unwilling captives of the gigantic ice floes while wintering, the men become “a population of loss” who “in our lethargy… had only the energy to covet and loathe.” In the darkness, the temperature drops to 49 degrees below zero. Huddled with Aziz, Kane learns the story of the man’s birth and his three hands. Aziz describes a barren village, twisted by poverty, given sudden opportunity to enrich itself. Of all Aziz’s tales of the villagers and the distortion of their greed, the tale of the Rope Eater most describes the astonishing inhumanity to which the village has fallen prey.
As Nature exacts her deadly toll on the Narthex and her crew, a few, including Kane and the doctor, forge ahead to find their arctic Eden hidden somewhere within the rigid ice floes. Even the doctor’s relentless calculations cease to make sense, causing Kane to doubt the veracity of their quest, when “believing that this easy complexity can pass for vision” may simply be evidence of man’s astonishing hubris.
The extraordinary writing in The Rope Eater is as unforgiving as the elements. Each step of the journey is brutal, each moment of humanity quickly extinguished by nature’s fury; yet it is man’s impulse to challenge the impossible. Jones’ prose is full of exacting detail and persuasiveness. Joining the Narthex to the tale of the Rope Eater, Jones enters into the territory of myth in a story both shocking and compelling.