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Gentleman Overboard – Herbert Clyde Lewis

by Venky

(Image Credit: goodreads.com)

Fecundity in thought and fastidiousness in deed, are not attributes one associates with a man who has accidentally plunged headlong into the sea through the gaping porthole of a ship. Yet fertile thinking and methodical planning seize Henry Preston Standish, the unfortunate protagonist of Herbert Clyde Lewis’ satirical tragi-comic novel Gentleman Overboard after Standish finds himself stranded in the vast expanse of the Pacific. An involuntary destination hastened by an untimely slip on the greasy floor of the deck of SS Arabella. Perhaps the book is Clyde Lewis cocking a snook at Hollywood after whose ‘blacklist’ he found himself in obscurity and unfortunately underneath a glitzy fashion era that comfortably passed him by. First printed in 1937 before being lost to the literary world for a prolonged period of seventy years, Gentleman Overboard is sans semblance of any doubt, a neglected classic.

Yale educated Standish, husband to Olivia and father to Standish Jr and Helen, stockbroker in a brokerage firm part owned by him and his father-in-law (Pym, Bingley & Standish), generally has been on the fortunate side of life until a bout of philosophical unease racks him and he decides to go to Hawaii by sea to alleviate himself of his mental stress. Fate and circumstance, contrive to first put him on the S.S. Arabella – when he overhears a conversation extolling the sunsets in the Pacific and decides to make the return journey to New York by ship instead of flight – and subsequently out into the sea through a porthole, courtesy an unforeseen slip.

Relying both upon the instincts of his fellow passengers and crew aboard the Arabella and on the proven law of buoyancy, Standish tries to maintain decorum and optimism as the ship first resembling the cavernous bottom of a gargantuan baboon begins to imperceptibly put a distance between itself and its stranded passenger.  Diminishing in size, it progresses from being a small canoe, and a barely visible speck to a reluctant dot before finally disappearing,

With an indifference that would have made the Stoics proud as a collective, Preston allows neither his thoughts to stray towards a catastrophic ending not the water to penetrate his lungs. Ruminating on what a marvelous story his accident and subsequent rescue would make; Standish begins constructing the contours of his escapade at sea.

But when it becomes clear to him that the occupants and the crew of Arabella are astonishingly and unbelievably oblivious to the absence of a fellow passenger, Standish begins to ruminate on the pleasures and pitfalls of dying at sea. The searing detachment and indifference depicted by Standish may as well be an allusion to Lewis’ own emotions at being ostracized by an ostentatious and prestigious community.

The eccentricities and hollowness of the fellow passengers once they realise Standish is missing, might also be carefully and deliberately aimed barbs by Lewis against his detractors. Mrs. Benson a mother of four and Standish’s swimming partner begins speculating about the character or an apparent lack of it on the part of Olivia that may have led Standish to jump off the deck. Nat Adams, a Yankee farmer of 73 and Standish’s favourite companion on deck, finds appropriate meanings where there was none in recollecting his conversations with Standish. “…. but I just realized Mr. Standish was thinking about it all the time, while we thought he was happy. Only a week ago he said to me: ‘Adams, he said, ‘a pity a man can’t live like this forever, just feeling happy without having to think for a reason.”

The reader is so engrossed and enraptured by the musings of Standish that there is even a selfish desire for any potential rescue to be delayed so that there is absolutely no interrupting the delightful, but never deleterious train of thoughts informing a man who is at the precipice of doom.

The last chapter, however, makes for an unsettling and cathartic read. The urge to flip the pages and get enlightened about the outcome that the Fates have for poor Standish, is so irresistible that one wouldn’t even mind plunging headlong through a metaphorical porthole to give company to Standish as he contemplates his present predicament and probable future.

While indiscreetly or even accidentally plunging headlong into any endeavour, let alone through a porthole of a ship, may be antithetical to prudence – not to mention the unintended consequences to mental and physical wellbeing – Herbert Clyde Lewis’ Gentleman Overboard is a refreshingly pleasant exception to the norm.

Please dive away with gay abandon!

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