Books March 2008

Cover to Cover

A guide to additional releases: a prodigy's rise and fall; Gordimer's and Coetzee's latest fiction; Chicago's greatest brothel

HISTORY

Sin in the Second City
by Karen Abbott (Random House)

If any American bordello achieved high repute, it was the luxurious Everleigh Club in Chicago at the turn of the last century. Here, such writers as Theodore Dreiser and Edgar Lee Masters were enthusiastic clients, as was the local merchant prince Marshall Field Jr., who may have been fatally shot there. The Everleighs were adept at covering up scandal; even visiting royalty could publicly express a desire to drop by this famed house of ill repute. When Prince Henry of Prussia (Kaiser Wilhelm’s brother) visited Chicago in 1902, the Everleigh Club feted him with a consciously Dionysian tableau featuring a fake bull and real raw meat. Abbott tells her story with just the right mix of relish and restraint, providing a piquant guide to a world of sexuality neatly wrapped in just enough respectability to not merely survive but flourish until the Mann Act finally led to its closure in 1911.

The Wreck of the Medusa: The Most Famous Sea Disaster of the Nineteenth Century
by Jonathan Miles (Grove/Atlantic)

Wreck of the Medusa: Mutiny, Murder, and Survival on the High Seas
by Alexander McKee (Skyhorse)

In 1816, the Medusa, a French frigate en route to West Africa, came to grief on the Bank of Arguin, several miles off the Senegalese coast. Passengers and crew clambered aboard lifeboats and a makeshift raft; but efforts to tow the raft failed, and the 150-some souls aboard it—abandoned by the captain— were left behind. What followed was a fortnight of death, madness, and cannibalism. When rescuers at last arrived, they encountered only 15 survivors. The story is riveting enough on its own macabre merits, but Miles makes it more gripping still, chiefly through his deft reconstruction using scattered accounts and conflicting records. He also makes a wise casting decision: as heroes, we get the Medusa survivor Alexandre Corréard and the contemporary painter Théodore Géricault (whose famous 1819 work has long been visual shorthand for the horrifying episode and its aftermath). Miles uses their contrasting personalities and circumstances to forge a sort of Gallic Woodward-and-Bernstein dialectic, then pits the pair against the newly restored Bourbon monarchy and its shameful post-disaster attempts at saving face by suppressing the facts.

The volume by the maritime writer McKee (first published in 1975; this is its second reissue) is just as worthy as the Miles book, albeit far less readable. Perhaps owing to the reconstructive difficulties outlined above, the strangely uneven tone here—alternately poetic and prosaic (sometimes from sentence to sentence)—is occasionally confounding. McKee does best when he contextualizes the disaster, showing how the recently felled French Empire “was reflected in miniature aboard the Medusa,” and how the whole episode—from the maddening incompetence of the ship’s captain (a glorified customs officer favored by Louis XVIII’s brother), to the near-absent command structure aboard the raft (which facilitated the entropy), to the later disgraces perpetrated by the Bourbons—was a profound allegory for post-Napoleonic collapse. (Indeed, the political scramble after Waterloo may have indirectly doomed the voyage well before its launch.) Ultimately, though, this tale—an oddly ineluctable story of human suffering and endurance, cruelty and compassion—fairly tells itself. As such, both books are essential entries in the survival-literature canon.

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