American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE ORDINARY SEAMAN (1997). Francisco Goldman’s (1955-?) second novel, The Ordinary Seaman has been described as a modern parable of America’s hidden immigrant culture. Son of a Jewish American father and Catholic Guatemalan mother, Goldman populates his fiction with characters who serve as projections of a self that is culturally divided. The Ordinary Seaman is essentially a story about liminality, that space, like the sea itself, where one’s perceptions or situation blends with, or crosses over into, the perceptions or situations of others.

The novel centers on Esteban, a nineteen-year-old Nicaraguan between adolescence and manhood, communism and capitalism, first and second love. An ex-Sandinista guerrilla, he signs on as a sailor without seaman’s papers and is transported, with a makeshift crew of fourteen other desperate Centroamericanos from varied backgrounds, to the urban jungle of a remote pier in a desolate Brooklyn shipyard. Abandoned, in political, legal, and personal limbo, they become virtual prisoners on a ship that never sails, the broken-down, rat-infested Urus. A cavernous freighter crippled by fire damage, stripped for parts, and lacking even the most basic provisions for human habitation, this vessel becomes a death trap.

A “greenhorn” undergoing a rite of passage, Esteban had been encouraged by a surrogate father-figure to jump ship in a foreign land to escape a megalomanic captain with no regard for his ship or crew beyond their usefulness. Goldman uses the uniquely privileged position of the sea captain to illustrate the corrosive effects of unbridled egoism, which not only skews the moral compass but jeopardizes life itself.

Victor Verney