"The Passages of H.M.: A Novel of Herman Melville" (Doubleday, $26.95), by Jay Parini: Before you embark on this particular literary voyage, flip to the back of the book and read the acknowledgments. It helps to hear the author state, in his own voice, "This is a novel, not a literary biography. In other words, I made up many things, shifted events to suit my narrative purposes, and invented dialogue, as well as certain letters and journal entries."
Now turn to the first page and enjoy Jay Parini's version of "Call me Ishmael": "I had become, in middle age in the midst of marriage to Herman Melville, a captive." It's a great opening line that sets the stage for the next 450 pages.
Every other chapter in the novel is titled, "Lizzie," and narrated by Melville's wife, Elizabeth Shaw. Stuffed between those chapters is a remarkable tale told by an omniscient third person of how a boy became a man and how that man struggled to put in words what he felt in his soul.
Herman Melville, now widely regarded in the American literature canon as a "great American novelist," never enjoyed the rewards of that title. It's almost impossible to believe, but "Moby-Dick" sold fewer than 3,000 copies in Melville's lifetime.
Parini's novel doesn't try to answer why. He portrays Melville as a man with a deep thirst for adventure who tried from his formative years to experience enough of life to be able to write about it perceptively. Readers are taken aboard Melville's first whaling ship; to the Marquesas Islands that inspired his best-selling book about life among cannibals ("Typee"); and to his adult relationship with fellow novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne.
About that relationship. Parini spends a lot of time emphasizing the homoerotic nature of Melville's male friendships. Nothing is ever consummated, but we see more than a few young men through Melville's eyes – "a handsome boy in his late teens, he was tall and slender, with large hands" – and the connection Melville feels to his contemporary Hawthorne is nothing short of spiritual.
Parini imagines intense conversations between the literary legends, including a night spent in 1851 (the year "Moby-Dick" was published) during which Melville awkwardly attempts to assert his love for "The Scarlet Letter" author. Parini then excerpts a letter (real or invented, we don't know) from Melville to Hawthorne dated Nov. 17, 1851: "Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips – lo, they are yours and not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces."
Readers who studied "Moby-Dick" in school, like this reviewer, will likely enjoy the novel more than most. There's nothing here as dense as "The Whiteness of the Whale," that metaphysical chapter in "Moby-Dick" that often induces sleep even among American literature majors. Parini keeps the narrative moving until Melville draws his final breath and the Lizzie chapters provide a welcomed fresh perspective throughout.
Is it an accident that the as-seen-from-behind profile of Melville on the cover jacket looks a lot like actor Adrien Brody? Maybe not. Parini's 1990 novel, "The Last Station," about the final year of Leo Tolstoy's life, was adapted into a 2009 Oscar-nominated film. But don't wait for "The Passages of H.M." at a theater near you. It's a fascinating portrait of an artist who was unappreciated in his lifetime, but is revered now that he's gone. Just ask your high school English teacher. Or Jay Parini.