THE BRAVER THING
By Clifford Jackman
In his widely heralded 2015 novel The Winter Family Clifford Jackman mixed pulp fiction with broader social and historical speculations as he told the story of a brutal gang of American outlaws. In his follow-up The Braver Thing he does something similar with the crew of the Saoirse, a pirate ship in the eighteenth century, though it’s a book that sails into different waters.
To be sure, the genre elements are all in place. This is a pirate novel so there’s a captain with an eye patch, a talking parrot, and sea battles that see men “pulped into tripe” with grapeshot and “hacked into meat” by swords. There are treasures lost and won, storms and duels and mutinies, and maybe even a giant sea beast at the end.
But in addition to all this swashbuckling there is a political theme introduced, signaled by an epigraph from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and chapter headings announcing the different forms of governance that are attempted on the Saoirse.
The ship of state is an ancient metaphor that goes back to Plato’s Republic, but it’s put to an extreme stress test here. That’s because these are men for whom violence isn’t a last resort but a profession and entire way of life.
As it sets out on its voyage the Saoirse is likened to “a wooden world . . . a parasitic nation at war with all the world, enemies of all mankind.” The crew are warrior monks of the sea: men without women, or much in the way of any human bonds at all. There are no female characters in the novel, and though lip service is paid to the notion of pirate brotherhood they are not a family. Real family being one of the few social units Winter presents as giving life purpose and meaning.
As with the gang of Winter desperadoes, the pirate ship in The Braver Thing is a radical anti-polis more than a microcosm of any sort of functioning society. The Gentlemen of Fortune and Honest Fellows, though bound together by articles of service and given to holding lots of shipboard meetings and votes, have little sense of loyalty or a social contract. The shipboard state, to use the language of political science, is prior to the individual.
What identity the crew have is submerged in rank and function. This is especially so at the top, where the isolation and burden of command results in self-flagellating pathologies. It’s not that absolute power corrupts so much as it breaks men into pieces.
The Braver Thing isn’t a novel that goes deep into the heads of any of its characters. There’s more a sense that anyone is expendable, with even the captains of the Saoirse coming and going almost by accident. But that is by design. Winter is less interested in psychology than he is in the behaviour of the group and the timely question of how to get by in a world where politics has gone mad and the ship of state is plunging into the blackness of darkness. Pro tips: keep your head down, do your duty, and you might get out alive.
Review first published in the Toronto Star, September 4 2020.