To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Ulysses – Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Can you ever read the same book twice? We were on a broad starboard reach, half a day’s sail out of Palma, Mallorca when disaster almost struck. My brother and personal attorney Joe E. Buoy and I were on the night watch, midnight to four in the morning, and we were just rounding Our Lady of the Pillar on Formentera, with me at the helm, and him filling a bucket on the aft rail, when I unintentionally jibed and then over-corrected which back-winded the sails. Luckily it was only blowing about thirty knots, and the seas were only 8-10 feet high. And did I mention it was a moonless night and I was seasick?
The good news is no one was killed. The better news is we didn’t capsize, or sink. Or break the mast or wreck the boat. Or tear the sails to shreds. Or end up pitched unceremoniously overboard into the seething sea. So that was good. It was hairy/scary there for a while there, but my attorney did manage to pull his pants back up and together we teamed up to wrestle the boat back on course, with none of the sleepy heads down below any wiser.
I was going to try to draw an analogy between myself and Odysseus when he sailed through the narrow channel with Charybdis, the dangerous whirlpool on one side, and Scylla, the three-headed monster on the other, and his skillful and miraculous escape, with the help of his guardian angel throughout his whole odyssey, Athena, until I realized the analogy was ludicrous and hideously self-serving. But then again, that pretty much sums up my whole life. His triumphant survival was due to bravery, skill, nerve, experience and a bit of divine provenance; my predicament was due to incompetence, inattention, laziness, arrogance, and the only reason the whole thing didn’t end in disaster was pure dumb accidental good (or bad) luck, depending if Darwin was right about the exceptions to natural selection or not. He was – there weren’t any because they died off.
The next five hundred or so miles was (fortuitously) smooth sailing to use a horrible cliche, and we arrived at Puerto Banus a couple of days later, with hide and humor dry and intact. We were sailing Phantome, a C&C 66 from Cannes, France to St. John’s in the U.S. Virgin Islands with an American captain, Bill, a cook from New York named Sally, and, Emma, a certified sailor and first mate from England. My attorney and I were hitchhiking a ride as “ballast” to Spain, so we could go visit my folks who were living in Portugal at the time. I had been the boat baboon on a yacht called Laissez-Faire, out of Port Vauban, Antibes, but had been fired for I think making a casual remark about the noonday meal, since the wretched British cook on that barge was also the captain’s concubine. What a sec – maybe her criminally overcooked meatballs and mash was actually authentic and welcome comfort food to your average Dagenham git – I never thought of that angle.
Anyway, all I said was something like “I never liked faggots*” and that somehow got me the boot.
Joe E. Buoy was living in the back of a Mini Countryman, or maybe it was a Traveller in the marina parking lot, I can’t remember which. But what I am sure of is it was too short for him to sleep comfortably in the back, so he had the ambulance-style doors cracked slightly so his feet could stick out in the open air. I have pictures, so put your skepticism back in your pocket.
Have you ever been out in the middle of the ocean, where sable sea and inky sky unite? It’s eerie and discombobulating – almost like you’re floating in some kind of amniotic fluid in inner/outer space. Especially if it’s a particularly dark night; the stars feel like incarnations of vivid fears and uncircumscribed desires projected onto the black canvas of the universe as almost recognizable and even familiar anthropomorphic animals and desires that sometimes nightmare nightly in our own minds.
This is a long-winded introduction to subject at hand: The Odyssey, which I was reading at the time, to try to make up for my dissolution and magnificent indifference at college, and to seduce women. And which I just reread again this past week and wanted to chime in on, since I gave such an eloquent and insightful overview of The Iliad.
Unfortunately, I didn’t learn anything back then, and the girls weren’t impressed at all either to put it mildly. I decided to dive headlong in since I had heard about most of the adventures, vaguely and obliquely, which I’m sure most of you people had too, but wanted to get the big picture, the full heroic and Homeric circle. I remembered only snippets and incomplete tableaux: a for some reason silent black and white movie fragment of a bloody and blinded Cyclops throwing rocks into the ocean, and the crude inter-cutting to men pantomiming obvious and grotesque agony. Circe and her swine also swum up from memory – from a short, picture-book story, perhaps? And then something about axe handles and arrows. The kicker was reading Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, quoted above, and his best-ever call to action: “To strive, to seek to find and not to yield,” which became my defining and defiant mantra. I mean in theory. In real life my rule was that if a woman (or anyone for that matter) had lower standards than mine, I lowered mine.
We sailed into Puerto Banus just at sunset and there was kindergarten-colored Countach after Countach lined up along Calle Ribera like Euclidean Hot Wheels on acid – bright, sharp trapezoidal trophies for oversized Arabian horsepower egos. In case you didn’t know, the Piedmontese word countach refers to “the tuft of tresses above the meat curtains, often producing the impression of a vagina mustache.” Cracks me up every time.
I’m not sure whether I should give the synopsis of the book here, or tell you about how my brother and I were trying to get Emma to show us her tits the whole trip. Whenever she’d go sunbathing on the beach back in Cannes or Antibes, she’d be basically naked, like most unselfconsciously immodest Riviera lovelies, wearing only a g-string that was small enough to fit in a thimble. But on the boat modesty, or maybe an intentionally evil cock-tease prudery ruled, and left us tortured and dangerously unfulfilled, at least eye-chocolate wise. We’d always ask to be flashed, and she always devilishly refused.
Except for one time I was up in the boson’s chair all the way up at the head of the mast, five miles up in the sky, hanging on for dear life while I fixed the wind vane, when she called up, “Hey, Johnny,” and exposed her lovelies. I think I almost saw the gates of heaven opening up, or the truth and the promise of a new, heavenly day.
Which reminds me of the famous line Dick Cavett wrote for Jack Parr, “Here they are, Jayne Mansfield” when the famous host introduced the buxom actress on his show. This boson/bosom episode seems puerile and fatuous writing about it now, but at the time I was a tortured Catholic hysteric, and, even though I wasn’t lashed Odysseus-like to the mast, I felt the suicidal pull of the siren call, so-to-speak, which is essentially Schopenhauer’s wille zum leben – crudely put, the unquenchable desire to impregnate fertile women, don’t you know, was exaltingly real.
We’ve already dived into The Iliad in a previous blog, so you’re familiar with the backstory and character arc for The Odyssey. Homer’s later and maybe even greater masterpiece opens with Prince Telemachus still in anguish over his father’s unknown fate, even though the Trojan War’s been over for ten years, or his whereabouts, and Penelope, Odysseus’ long-suffering but loyal wife is in torment too. A large number of aggressive, uncouth suitors have taken over their home, and are relentless in their bankrupting pursuit of the widow queen and her treasures, worldly and other-worldly.
Here’s how the whole sublime whirligig famously starts:
the hallowed heights of Troy.
The first chapter is titled Athena Inspires the Prince, and the epic poem raises the curtain on Mount Olympus, where Athena, Odysseus’ guide and protector, is pleading with Zeus to either let him die, or help him find his way home. Or has he forgotten about Odysseus already? Zeus tells her of course not – it’s his brother Poseidon who is preventing Odysseus from returning home because Odysseus blinded the Cyclops, who was one of his tribe. He tells Athena that he will do everything he can to help Odysseus find his way back to Penelope, and Athena flies down to Ithaca, disguised as Mentes, king of the Tathians, and urges Prince Telemachus to journey forth into the world to find out the fate of his father, once and for all.
So the first four books of the Odyssey, called the Telemachy, describe Telemachus’ odyssey within a the bigger odyssey: a man on what came to define the quintessential hero’s journey, and his son on his own quest to find his long-lost and beloved but not-yet-forgotten father.
Telemachus, you remember, was his dad’s earlier sanity litmus test: when Odysseus pretended to be crazy and started sowing his fields with salt so he wouldn’t have to go off to the Trojan War, Palamedes threw his infant son in front of the plow and Odysseus veered away so as not to kill him, and thus exposed his “temporary insanity plea” as humiliating fakery. Sidebar note of almost no importance: Carol King’s cat was named Telemachus, and was featured on the cover of her astounding album Tapestry album.
Le Rouf was crowded that night, a few weeks before the backwind almost fiasco, and my attorney and I had just stopped in for a short one on our way to a Van Morrison concert at Le Palais in Cannes. I had never heard of him, but the engineer on Laissez-Faire, Peter, a working-class Liverpudlian knew his music and said Van was the Man. I believed him, because he played Inarticulate Speech of the Heart for me once, in the engine room while we were repairing a sooty black hole in one of the turbo chargers while on a weekend trip to St. Tropez, and it’s a haunting, otherworldly and impressively articulate speech of the heart.
And also because one time we went to the Vol-au-Vent to listen to some live music and Peter kept telling me and everyone else in the elbows-in packed pub who would listen what a shite violin player the band had. Finally the lead singer got sick of it and told Peter to shut up unless he could do any better. Peter was 9/10ths in the bag, and stood up on our table and told the guy to hand him the violin. I thought he was going to make a bloody fool of himself at worst, or fall off the table and crack his head open at best. The band started in on a cover of some song that was popular at the time, let’s just say for arguments sake it was Come on, Eileen, and Peter shredded it to absolute pieces.
I asked him afterwards why he never played the violin anymore and he told me a few years ago he was down and out and had pawned it to pay his rent. He literally got a job the next day, and should’ve gone right back and bought it back, but he didn’t. And he never picked up another one again. I thought it was a shame how easily necessity often annuls art.
Anyway, I noticed the guy sitting next to me and Joe E. Buoy at the bar because he had a Boston accent, in French, which is surreal two levels down, and, who, come to find out, was from Dorchester, and not the yacht club side. “You sound retarded,” my attorney said to him, “or are you really retarded?” Captain Bill cracked up, and said no, but he was “a borderline moron.” He told us he was sailing Phantome across to the U.S. Virgin Islands for a client of his, and was looking for a crew. By the time we had signed up as, to use Lord Mitford’s wonderfully dismissive “two meaningless pieces of meat,” it was close to dawn and we were by then three sheets to the wind plus a hundred. Van Morrison would remain an unseen and mostly unheard mystery man in my musical education for at least another decade, to my infinite diminishment. It’s one of my only regrets in life – Le Palais is an intimate venue – but if we went to the concert we would’ve literally missed the boat.
So in the next chapter Telemachus sets sail, secretly, to avoid his mother’s suitors and their murderous intent, and we did too, eventually, since the boat had to be hauled and bottom-painted first, and the rigging required a routine re-jigging fore and aft. We also had to provision up, and prepare ourselves for the wine-dark sea to receive us.