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In Extremis

Two books force us to confront our truest selves

by Dale Bailey

In her 1963 defense of "A Good Man is Hard to Find," her grotesque tale of an old woman's spiritual salvation at the hands of a mass murderer, Flannery O'Connor offers a rationale for the preoccupation of 20th-century American writers with violence. "It is the extreme situation," she writes, "that best reveals what we are essentially."

O'Connor's observation continues to bear fruit at the turn of the century. In contemporary television, the appeal of reality programming arises from our voyeuristic fascination with what happens when normal (if unusually buff) people find themselves in high-pressure situations. And if the conclusions we draw from such programs are unpleasant—are we really as self-serving, venal, and narcissistic as your average Survivor contestant?—well, so much the better. After all, there's nothing more horrifically compelling than a wreck on the highway.

That same perverse fascination is at work in contemporary journalism. Accounts of true disasters—ranging from Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air to Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm—have lately cropped up among the diet and investment guides that clot the non-fiction bestseller list. Sure to rank high among such narratives are two recent trade paperbacks, Ted Conover's Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing and Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea.

You could argue that Conover doesn't belong in this company. Newjack is a story not of natural disaster, but of the year Conover spent as a prison guard in one of America's most infamous penitentiaries. Conover's experience exposed him both to the rigorous training guards undergo—a regimen of classroom instruction and physical conditioning that includes exposure to tear gas—and their unique vocational challenges.

In its depiction of prison culture, however, the book stakes out a heart-rending territory contiguous with that of disaster narratives. Conover explodes many myths of prison life—rape and brutal officers are relatively rare—but his account of an environment where human beings are routinely deprived of dignity, and where the potential for violence pervades every breath, packs a subtle and insidious punch.

The personal toll of such a setting becomes clear when he describes coming home to his overtired toddler. Staring at the child through the bars of its crib, Conover can't help thinking of the men imprisoned on his cell block, a sign of the degree to which his work permeates every aspect of his existence. Taken in the context of sobering statistics about American prisons, the scene is a telling indictment of the human cost of mandatory sentencing laws, and a grim picture of the growing population of Americans for whom extremity is the norm.

A more traditional account of natural disaster, Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea is a description of the 1820 maritime calamity that inspired Moby Dick. Melville's novel culminates with the whale's attack on the Pequod. Philbrick's narrative begins there. Their vessel destroyed by an enraged 85-foot sperm whale, the crew of the whaleship Essex set off in 25-foot whaleboats on a 2,000-mile odyssey to the coast of South America.

While Philbrick's story lacks Newjack's contemporary relevance, its clean prose and compelling scenario more than compensate for lack of topicality. Philbrick's descriptions of the 19th-century whaling industry are fascinating, and his narrative of the journey to South America makes for gripping reading. Perhaps most moving are his descriptions of the consequences of the ordeal on its survivors. Charles Ramsdell, a common sailor aboard the Essex, could never bring himself to speak of the experience, while Owen Chase, the ship's first mate, spent his final years obsessively hoarding food in the attic of his Nantucket home.

The book's most disturbing episode, however, revolves around the relationship between the Essex captain, George Pollard, and Owen Coffin, his 18-year-old first cousin. Facing starvation after 78 days adrift, the surviving men cast lots to choose who will die in order to assure the survival of his companions. Entrusted with Coffin's safety during this, his inaugural whaling voyage, Pollard instead finds himself supervising his young cousin's execution and the cannibalizing of his remains.

If we accept Flannery O'Connor's claim that we are our

truest selves when our situations are most desperate, then Owen Coffin's death exposes the lie

of "A Good Man is Hard to Find." The men of the whaleship Essex do not find salvation in extremis. Instead, like too many of the prisoners and correctional officers Ted Conover writes about in Newjack, they come face-to-face with brutality and despair.

September 6, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 9
© 2001 Metro Pulse