David Grann's The Wager, the true story of the titular British warship's 1741 wreck on a desolate island south of Chile, has much to say about 18th-century naval life, the survival impulse, republicanism, and the breakdown of humanity under pressure—if you make it past the first half-dozen or so chapters.
That's unfortunate, because the middle chapters, on the island, are so good that they don't suffer from the inevitable comparisons to Lord of the Flies and Robinson Crusoe. (One castaway reads and frequently cites the real story of Alexander Selkirk, whose marooning inspired Daniel Defoe's fictional Crusoe.) Grann here resists the urge to embellish his writing—and, exactly because of that plain, unadorned style, achieves real horror as the men's desperation turns to madness and thoughts of cannibalism.
The book stays at this high pitch as a group of sailors decides to mutiny against the captain, David Cheap. The mutiny's leader, Wager gunner John Bulkeley, is the book's most interesting figure—a seeming religious fanatic who, by totally unexpected circumstances, takes charge as a bold leader of men. Following John Locke, Bulkeley "invoked the rights to 'life' and 'liberty'" to justify the mutiny, accusing Cheap of being "the real source of chaos on the island." This second claim is "a more radical argument," Grann notes, striking at the core of the military chain of command and prefiguring Thomas Jefferson's assertion that the people have the inalienable right "to alter or to abolish" tyrannical governments. Is it any wonder that Bulkeley, who survived the Wager affair, moved to "a land where migrants could discard their burdensome pasts and reinvent themselves"—America—and specifically to Pennsylvania, "that future hotbed of rebellion"?
The main figure is midshipman John Byron, a nobleman's son and the grandfather of Lord Byron (whose poetry pops up often in the first few chapters). Byron, like his grandson, is a romantic—he enters the book at age 16, viewing shipboard life as valiant and war as glorious. While many of the Wager's survivors wrote accounts of the wreck, Byron's was one of the best known in its day (and went on to "cast a spell" on his grandson, who mentions it in Don Juan). Perhaps because of that, Byron emerges as the book's most dynamic character, with his romanticism severely shaken in the shipwreck and its aftermath.
The man against whom Bulkeley mutinied, Captain Cheap, is equally interesting. In a work of fiction, he could easily be the villain of the piece—also a nobleman's son (or, to be precise, the scion of a family whose title "evoked nobility even if it did not quite confer it") who comes off as unprepared for command of the Wager. Bulkeley, for one, later accused Cheap of being not only a tyrant but also "an incompetent and murderous commander," as Grann phrases it. Because Grann perused many different accounts of the Wager story and is careful to give each of the Wager's sailors a distinct voice, however, Cheap retains an innate dignity throughout. Even when he seems to be losing his wits (trapped on the island, he clings to the belief that his crew will attack an enemy Spanish vessel), he never becomes the fictionalized Captain Bligh, cruel and spiteful without cause, or the fictional Captain Queeg, psychotically searching for nonexistent strawberries.
To get to that material, though, the reader must make it through the book's early chapters. Long sections are clotted, with Grann piling on description on description. Some details, of course, are necessary to set up the story and characters, and the meticulousness of the research is admirable, though excessive (or at least exhausting) at times.
Grann concludes the prologue with what seems an attempt at profound prose poetry. But he is at his most poetic when he's not straining to be poetic. This passage, for example, understatedly and effectively conveys the suddenness and ubiquity of death at sea:
The captain of the Severn wrote, in a report to the Admiralty, that after the death of his ship's master he had filled the role by promoting a seaman named Campbell. … Moments later, the captain added to the same dispatch, "I have just received notice that Mr. Campbell is this day dead." … Byron tried to offer his deceased companions a proper sea burial, but there were so many corpses, and so few hands to assist, that the bodies often had to be heaved overboard unceremoniously.
The Wager's good chapters are very good. Grann writes that he "spent years combing through the archival debris: the washed-out logbooks, the moldering correspondence, the half-truthful journals, the surviving records from the troubling court-martial." Between that research and his own skill, he fairly depicts "the participants' conflicting, and at times warring, perspectives," notably in his portrayal of Cheap.
This fairness also appears in Grann's The Devil and Sherlock Holmes (2010). It is likely a journalistic fairness—Grann is a staff writer at the New Yorker, and his work appeared in multiple publications, including the Weekly Standard. It is also a classically humanist fairness, an ability to see what the film critic Andrew Sarris once called "the right-wrong in all of us."
Despite these criticisms, The Wager rewards the reader who gets to the middle chapters. If the book does not achieve all its goals (its criticism of empire, for one thing), it does achieve many of them, particularly on the political ramifications of mutiny. The core of The Wager (as of all good sea stories), though, is not themes but persons, a chance to save sailors from the Davy Jones's Locker of history. That's a sea change to be thankful for.
The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder
by David Grann
Doubleday, 352 pp., $30