The tsunami of fiction—long tale to long tail—on the market today is staggering, and with it come ever more inventive attempts at being original. One area rich for mining is the usage of popular characters of the past. Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein, James Bond, Jane Eyre—these and others are finding second, third, and fourth lives under the guiding hand of new authors. Hit or miss, undoubtedly there is some grave-turning happening. While first flush may make the reader believe Jeffrey Ford has caused Herman Melville to take a turn or two, deeper examination reveals his 2018 Ahab’s Return: or, The Last Voyage has legs of its own to stand on (har har—har?), and is certainly worth looking deeper into.
George Harrow is an early pulp writer living in New York City in 1853. The oddest of visitors showing up at his tabloid’s offices one day, the one and only Captain Ahab complete with whalebone leg comes clumping through the door. Ishmael a former copy editor for the tabloid, Harrow immediately recognizes the haggard sea captain from the novel, and sets to questioning him how he survived the white whale. Ahab spinning his tale, Harrow’s editor recognizes fictional gold when he hears it, and gives Harrow a stipend to help the returned captain find his wife and son on the condition Ahab allow Harrow to turn his recollections into stories for the tabloid. The search and stories going smoothly, things take a turn, however, when the unlikely pair learn that Ahab’s son is in the clutches of a street gang known for peddling opium, beatings, and outright murder. The plot, as they say, thickens as the gang’s nefarious leader comes into the light.
What at first feels like historical fiction, Ahab’s Return slowly but very surely evolves into full on, fully aware pulp adventure. Thus for those interested in reading the novel purely for fictional pleasure, the possibility is there; Ford tells a finely balanced adventure of street gangs, heroes, and the opium trade on a researched, mid-19th century New York City that feels real—besides, of course the fantastical monsters, coincidences, acts of heroism, and the other meat of pulp adventure…
For those so inclined, there is also the possibility to peel back the surface and dig a little deeper. In so digging, one will find multiple layers. There is, naturally, the relation of Ahab’s Return to Moby Dick. No knowledge of Melville’s novel is required to understand the story, but if one takes into account certain interpretations of Moby Dick, particularly its refutation of Emerson et al’s Transcendentalism, then Ford would seem to refute the refuter in ways that are best discovered by the reader. On the contemporary scene, there is a strong political edge to Ahab’s Return that cuts satirically into America today. It doesn’t take too much imagination to understand who the Pale Toad King really is. The representation of discrimination is a bit heavy-handed, but for what is superficially a pulp novel, such subtleties may not have been an option.
And lastly are the metafictional possibilities for the novel. Harrow a writer spinning tales based on tales which is based on a tale which, if the scholars are to be believed, is based on Melville’s real life experiences as a whaler, then we’ve gone deep-deep into the strata of fiction. Ford reflecting on this through the manner in which his writer characters (more than Harrow) interact with and ‘create’ their world, Ford, as is evident in some of his short stories, is using fiction as a form of interrogating how we understand and interpret reality. To say Ahab’s Return is a full-blown exploration of this idea would be an overstatement, rather that Ford takes advantage of the novel’s premise to do some light prodding and poking in the area for some breezy, intellectual fun.
To be clear, Ahab’s Return is not an extension of Moby Dick. To say it is reactive I think is also incorrect (though there are certainly legitimate opportunities to view it so). It would be most correct to say Ahab’s Return uses Moby Dick as a platform. From metafiction to politics, Ford utilizes Melville’s famous novel to tell his own mid-19th century tale, all the while commenting on American politics circa 2018 in both enjoyable and relatively substantive form. Recommended.