The Western Limit of the World: A Novel

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9781400061624: The Western Limit of the World: A Novel
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David Masiel’s first novel, 2182 Kilohertz, was one of the most greatly praised books of 2002. A riveting adventure of an unlikely hero’s quest for personal redemption in frigid arctic waters, it earned its author comparisons to such giants of nautical fiction as Melville and Conrad. Now Masiel more than meets the promise of his debut with a harrowing odyssey of love and betrayal on the high seas–and in the shadowy corners of the human heart.
At fifty-nine, Harold Snow has seen his share of death. His baptism of fire came on his twenty-first birthday, on a navy ship in the Coral Sea, when a Japanese kamikaze pilot slammed into the deck. Years later, in the aftermath of a typhoon in the Bay of Bengal, he lay awake on a ship surrounded by thousands of drowned corpses and listened to the sharks feed.
Now, serving as boatswain aboard the Tarshish, a decrepit tanker whose papers are as suspect as its seaworthiness, a weary Snow feels death creeping closer than ever. It’s there in the lethal cargo of volatile chemicals the ship carries in its leaky hold. It stares back from the brutal eyes of the first mate, Bracelin, with whom Snow has embarked on a desperate and highly illegal venture to steal a black-market fortune. It’s in the dangerous welter of emotions he feels for Beth, the beautiful half-English, half-Liberian crewmate lusted after by every other male onboard. It clings to young George Maciel, grandson of Snow’s oldest friend, a seminary dropout whose disastrous arrival earns him a reputation as a Jonah. And it’s there in the memory of Van Sickle, a dead man who haunts Snow with visions of his own dark past.
Snow’s risky plans begin to go awry when the Tarshish is refused entry to the Bay of San Francisco. Forced to return to the open Pacific, Snow and Bracelin embark on a scattershot voyage of shoestring improvisation that will take the disintegrating hulk–sailing under forged papers and a new name–from South America to Africa. Along the way they will encounter hurricanes, crooked customs officials, and tropical ports seething with vice and revolution.
This outer voyage is mirrored by a dark and twisted inner journey that will strip Snow down to his bare essence as a man. And as George and Beth flaunt their involvement, and Bracelin embraces cold-blooded murder, Snow will face a stark choice between life and death, damnation and redemption, at the western limit of the world.

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About the Author:

David Masiel is the acclaimed author 2182 Kilohertz. He spent his early years in Richmond, California, where he was exposed to sea stories by his grandfather, a master mariner whose career spanned fifty-four years. Masiel received a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of California at Davis. Between 1980 and 1989, he worked offshore in the arctic oilfields, sailing on oceangoing tugboats and icebreakers, mostly in Alaskan waters. He lives in Northern California.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Harold Snow figured he'd seen more dead people than anyone alive, something like 102,000 by his best estimate. Lately his eyeballs played old film, like movie screens showing heinous scenes, the dead queued up before him to shake his shoulders and yell, "Wake up!" But Snow couldn't wake up. The night the new ordinary came aboard, he lay in his bunk being chased by bombs. He was running down the side deck of a fleet oiler in 1942. Then he was in a medical ward at Pearl where a nurse was giving him a sponge bath and a hard-on at the same time. When he finally did awaken it was thirty-eight years later and a voice in his blacked-out room was telling him the ship had been denied entry into San Francisco.

Snow rolled toward the sound wishing he could pretend this was impossible. He wished he could kill the messenger. People underestimated the power of that kind of thing; it was ritualized denial, though in this case he didn't even know who the messenger was. A dream voice, that nurse, flicking his erection as if removing an insect then telling him the Coast Guard was turning the tanker around. Time was muddled. He was ship's boatswain. He hauled himself out of his bunk and across the room wearing boxer shorts, his gray hair sticking straight up off his head. His body was tanned, muscles tightening as he walked, belly round and hard, but his joints clicked. In his private head, he washed his face and combed his hair with Vitalis. By the time he stepped down the passageway from his cabin on the ship's O-2 deck, he wore simple leather work boots, jeans cuffed at the ankles, suspenders, a pinstriped work shirt--blue--and a mackinaw jacket. He descended the internal stair tower and out the companionway to the afterdeck, to a clear winter dusk.

His ship was called Tarshish, and she lay at anchor eight miles outside the Golden Gate, just north of the sea buoy and just west of the pilot boat San Francisco, its mast lights pitching on a rising southwesterly swell. Beyond, Snow could see the dim hump of the Marin headlands, with the blinking swing of Point Bonita Light defining its seaward side. To the east-southeast, the Golden Gate formed two perfect waves of lighted orange. Lights began their glimmers along the waterfront, Coit Tower like a glowing fire nozzle, the narrow girded pyramid of the Trans-America building rising before the downtown. The sight of it all, and the prospect that they had just lost five million dollars in cargoes, made a desperate ball form in his chest.

Snow turned up the portside weather deck to find Bracelin, the ship's chief mate, talking with a Coast Guard ensign, leaning toward the man with insistence. "This is cheap screw," he said. Two crewmen listened from above, stretched out over the poop deck railing making motions as if to spit on the coastie's head. Ostensibly joking, their faces had a grim set, and they looked to be having little fun with it.

The coastie was holding his own, all spit-polish with a voice that lectured. "Some people might be okay with bulk chemicals washing up on Fisherman's Wharf. Me, I have a problem with it. If this were a U.S.-flagged ship, she'd be impounded and towed to dry dock. As is, consider yourselves fortunate."

He sounded like a northeastern boy. One of those yacht guys, a real sailor. Snow had the urge to toss the prick overboard. But he was buff in a thin-waisted way. He could probably tread water for three days. They'd have to knock him one on the head before they gave him the heave-ho, and Snow didn't much care for knocking people on the head. He'd done it before in his life and, truth was, these days he didn't like thinking about it. He didn't like the bad dreams he'd been having. He didn't like the mood of self-judgment, or the way a certain female AB looked at him when he told her things he had done in his life.

He realized now that she'd been the one to rouse him with the bad news. She had told him and run off before he was fully awake.

A crew boat approached along the port side, the coastie checking his watch, then blathering on about two dozen code violations, about illegal soft plug repairs in the pipeline, about a compromised seal on the covered lifeboat. "Mark my words: you try to put to sea in that, you will buy the Ground Port."

Snow wondered what the hell this guy knew about the Ground Port. He couldn't resist chiming in. "Listen here, buddy. First off, that was on our list. So it's clear we ain't trying to hide anything. But we can't address problems if we can't get business done."

The coastie looked skyward in irritation. Then he blanched. The two Malaysian sailors hung over him, lifted their chins at him. "Uhh--" he stammered and looked at Snow. "You're missing the point, bos'n." He looked back up at the sailors and stepped out of their fall line.

"The point," said Bracelin, "is we're working our tails off to make this tub of shit copasetic." He stood a head taller than the coastie. "You got any idea how much money we stand to lose?"

The mate had the ugliest mug Snow had ever seen, like someone had carved a pumpkin only to decide on a different design, and so stuffed all the pieces back in place, the seams showing. As if that wasn't enough dead tissue, he had bead-sized scars all over his cheeks and nose from windblown caustic burns. His arms looked like gnarled tree roots entwined across his chest, and though the temperature wasn't more than 40 degrees F, Bracelin wore short-sleeved coveralls that said wade on the front patch and crown moving and storage on the back. His first name wasn't Wade at all, it was Charlie, but he wore those covies whenever a new man was coming aboard, regardless of climate, so they could see his thick biceps and arcane tattoos and be properly intimidated.

The most obvious tattoo was the analemma on the inside of Bracelin's left forearm. A figure-eight pattern with the approximate proportions of a bowling pin, the analemma showed the variation of the sun's position in the sky, as if you stood on a spot at the equator and took a snapshot of the sun at the same hour of every day for a full year. It bore the markings of the days of the year along with parallels of latitude, while his right forearm showed a series of equations, the stuff of spherical trigonometry. Bracelin's tattoos weren't just ornamental--he could figure his position at sea using only a sextant, a chronometer, a pencil, and his tattoos. Long as nobody cut his arms off, he didn't need star tables.

Now Bracelin's jaw muscles strained as he leaned forward. He looked ready to take a bite out of the guy's neck.

"Just take it easy," said the coastie. "There's nothing I can do for you, gentlemen." He tore off four sheets from his citation book and handed them to Bracelin. "Have a safe trip out of U.S. waters."

With the only good ear he had left, Snow heard a racket from up the deck, where two ABs leaned against the bulwarks holding a fire ax and a length of pipe respectively, hammering the deck with the butts of the tools. Then the crewmen overhead started in to whistle, and before long the crew was crowing and complaining like animals. Snow heard Ali, one of the Malaysians, say "Orang-puteh so stupid one-lah, no get into Frisco no way now!" while above, someone else bemoaned the loss of the Chinese New Year: "Year of the Snake I go Eddy Street get fucky for four dollar. God damn, no go Eddy Street now. No go Eddy Street!"

Snow felt the disappointment too, but he had visions of lost cargoes, lost dollars, lost opportunity--even a lost girl. The coastie looked around at the protesting crew and then stared straight at Bracelin. "Your crew's a bit tense."

"Three months on deep water," said the mate.

"They were hoping to go ashore," Snow added.

The coastie peered around as if seeing the ship for the first time. "Unusual situation you have here. American officers and petty officers, but a foreign crew." He looked to be pondering some life-altering decision. And maybe it was. Snow waited to hear where he was going with this, how far he wanted to push it.

"Ain't so unusual," said Bracelin. "We got a recent sale; we're just seeing out this run."

"Right," said the coastie. He looked around. Then at Bracelin. "What'd you say was wrong with the captain?"

"You saw him. He's sick."

"Never heard of a foreign outfit keeping American officers."

"Listen, bub," Bracelin snarled, "I'm no academy grad. I don't get the plums. I was a raw squid in 'fifty-nine, and the CPO of a nuclear submarine six years later. I been a merchant officer fifteen years. I came up the hawse pipe. I think I understand how things work. My job's running cargo, so I'm gonna go do that. Your job is to wait for your ride and make sure you don't fall overboard."

Bracelin moved topside, taking steps three at a time. Damn him for mentioning the sale, such as it was. The ensign kept watching the crew. Snow wanted them calm--he turned and raised a hand, and they fell quiet. They were a ragged crowd, with Frisco jeans and greased canvas pants and coveralls, faces streaked by sweat and frustration. Not only had they been aboard since Port Kuleng, Malaysia, without break, they'd worked ten hours prepping for this inspection. They didn't give a damn about contracts, all they cared about was sucking down Tsing-tao beers and ushering in the Year of the Monkey in Frisco Chinatown. By Snow's way of thinking, they had reas...

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Other Popular Editions of the Same Title

9780812971019: The Western Limit of the World: A Novel

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ISBN 10:  0812971019 ISBN 13:  9780812971019
Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2007

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9780141016955: Western Limit of the World

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