Three and half years ago I all but did cartwheels across these pages while trying to convey my joy at stumbling across David Masiel's raucous first...

Share story

“The Western Limit of the World”
by David Masiel
Random House, 290 pp., $24.95

Three and half years ago I all but did cartwheels across these pages while trying to convey my joy at stumbling across David Masiel’s raucous first novel, “2182 Kilohertz.”

That book, about an Arctic Slope contract worker whose marriage is breaking up because of his long stints away from home, had the punch and gusto of the best Thom Jones or Annie Proulx short stories. It also shared their wicked sense of humor.

Now with his second novel, “The Western Limit of the World,” California writer Masiel makes good on the promise and achievement of his debut.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Coming up

David Masiel, the author of “The Western Limit of the World,” reads 7:30 p.m. Thursday, at Elliott Bay Book Co., Seattle (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

“Limit” calls to mind B. Traven’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” — if Traven’s masterpiece had been set onboard a rusting, homeless chemical tanker, and if Traven’s unadorned prose were a little chewier, crazier and more hallucination-friendly.

As the book opens, the Liberian tanker Tarshish is trying to gain entry to San Francisco Bay but not having much luck.

“Some people might be okay with bulk chemicals washing up on Fisherman’s Wharf,” a disapproving “coastie” (Coast Guard official) says. “Me, I have a problem with it.”

And so begins a journey that will take the decrepit tanker down the West Coast, through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic Ocean to an extremely unsettled West Africa. Gradually, as the ship scrapes from one port to another, Masiel makes us aware that the Tarshish isn’t just a badly maintained toxic hazard. It’s also an outlaw ship that, with a change of name, a change of crew and some sleight-of-hand paperwork in Malaysia, has become the pirated booty of aging boatswain Harold Snow and burly chief mate Charlie Bracelin.

Although the tanker itself is ready for the scrap heap, its chemical cargo is worth a fortune — if Snow and Bracelin can just find a port where they can offload it without too many questions being asked.

Snow, an ailing 59-year-old World War II veteran, is the muddied conscience of the novel, and the pair of eyes through which we see this perilous enterprise being carried out. Bracelin is the canny, brutal muscleman of the scheme.

Accompanying them are a motley international crew, including half-Liberian-half-English Beth, whose feigned liaison with Snow is supposed to keep her from being sexual prey for the rest of the crew, and a youngster fresh from Jesuit seminary, whose grandfather was a close friend of Snow.

This youngster, in a bizarre turn, is named “Maciel.” But if author Masiel is offering a self-portrait here, it’s a caustic one. The “kid,” as Snow calls him, has “definitely got God worries” and carries a blood-flecked cat-o’-nine-tails with him for self-flagellating purposes. Despite these eccentricities, Snow can’t help feeling fatherly toward him, but Maciel keeps betraying him — starting by sleeping with Beth.

So, we have action-adventure (the welding scenes alone, as the chemical tanks keep springing leaks, are nightmare tense). We have greed and conscience and sexual opportunism doing battle. And, on an unexpected local note, we have cool blissful visions of the Cascades (Snow, originally from Index, keeps dreaming of the Washington mountain home that, for reasons to be disclosed, he “can’t go back to”).

Best of all, we have Masiel’s prose, which, with an alchemy all its own, evokes everything from the pleasures of a nighttime skinnydip in a lava-heated river in Panama to the effect of anti-malarial drugs “that caught dreams in a jar and fed them to you all through the next day until you couldn’t tell dreams from memories.”

By novel’s end, we’ve also been given the full measure of a flawed, criminal man coming up against the “real limit” of his life — and confronting, too, a vestige of decency in himself that only makes matters worse.

That’s Snow. It’s left to the cruder Bracelin to sum up the message of the book.

“Man’s always got choices,” he says. “Just sometimes neither of ’em is any good.”

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has also published four novels.