Review

Down to a Soundless Sea

by Thomas Steinbeck



I would not want to be Thomas Steinbeck. Imagine: you spend half of
your time explaining who you are, the other half explaining who you
aren't, and wait for the inevitable question, "Do you write, too?"
Steinbeck has blazed his own path, acquiring large if quiet success
as a photojournalist, cinematographer, and screenwriter. And, yes,
he does write, too. And quite well.

The conundrum one encounters when approaching DOWN TO A SOUNDLESS
SEA is approaching it on its own terms without using John Steinbeck
as a reference and comparison point. Steinbeck could have avoided
at least a portion of the dilemma by writing in a specialized
genre, such as science fiction or horror and thus rendered
intergenerational comparisons moot. He instead meets the problem
head on; the short fiction collected in DOWN TO A SOUNDLESS SEA are
Steinbeck's literary transcriptions of tales he grew up hearing
from his father and from others who dropped by his household.
Steinbeck wisely avoids disclosing to his readers who some of these
"others" were, but anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of John
Steinbeck's friends and contemporaries can easily guess. The
settings for these stories --- Big Sur and the California coast ---
were also frequently used by Steinbeck the Father. Thomas
Steinbeck, however, has found his own voice, and his own words. He
passes, and surpasses the "John Smith" test: if DOWN TO A SOUNDLESS
SEA was written by John Smith, it would be worth picking up, and
reading.

DOWN TO A SOUNDLESS SEA consists of seven stories; if there is a
common thread it is one of men following dreams and remaining true
to their internal vision, though not always wisely, not always
successfully. Thus, in "The Wool Gatherer," a young John Steinbeck,
retained by a rancher as a wrangler for summer work, finds his
attention from the job distracted by his sighting of a giant bear,
supposedly extinct. His efforts to find the bear, again, result in
his wages being docked and his summer effectively wasted. Yet,
there is a nobility found in the story that rings true for its
time. The ending to this little tale resounds quietly but is writ
large, so that it is not so much an entertainment but more a tacit
lesson, not sugarcoated but nonetheless easy to swallow.

"Blind Luck," one of the two longer stories in the book,
encapsulates the life of Chapel Lodge, whose childhood was so
devoid of love and caring that he at one point believed his name to
be "Hey you! Boy!" Possessing an innate, canny intelligence, Lodge
comes to believe that his luck --- if it is to be had and utilized
--- is to be found not on land, but on the sea.

"The Night Guide" is, perhaps, a tale of the supernatural, but more
so it is the story of a quiet, but indestructible bond between
mother and child, a fable and a history. It does not seem like
much, at first, but it echoes with the reader even as the other
stories herein are read and digested. The same is true of "An
Unbecoming Grace," a deceptively simple little tale involving a
traveling physician who plays inadvertently a most important role
in the lives of three people, and in the happiness of two of
them.

In "The Dark Watcher," meanwhile, an unassuming, untenured college
professor sets out to make his academic mark and succeeds in a way
that he did not anticipate. "The Blighted Cargo," one of the
shortest tales in the book, is also the weakness, though, it is a
fine enough entertainment, being a story of an ill-fated venture in
the slave trade where the individual involved is, as is said in
some parts, caught in his own juices.

The undisputed gem of DOWN TO A SOUNDLESS SEA is, however, "Sing
Fat and the Imperial Duchess of Woo," the final story in the book.
Almost one hundred pages long, this tale of romance and traditional
Chinese engagement between a young widow and a student apothecary
is practically worth the price of admission in and of itself. A
quick reading of Steinbeck might leave the reader with the feeling
that he takes two long to get the point of his stories and then
dispenses with it far too quickly. Such an impression misses the
point; every building, no matter how beautiful or utilitarian, is
no stronger than the foundation upon which it rests. So too, with
Steinbeck's short stories, and particularly with this last one, in
which we come to know young Sing Fat, and to a lesser extent his
erstwhile bride and the Imperial Duchess. It is unfortunate that
stories like this or so rarely written in these politically
correct, supposedly liberated days; it makes the beauty of this one
resonate all the more strongly.

Steinbeck is reportedly working on his first novel. It will be
interesting to see what he is able to do when given the room, and
the inclination, to stretch his stories out to cover a larger
canvas. He will certainly, on the basis of DOWN TO A SOUNDLESS SEA,
have an audience ready, and waiting, to greet him on his own terms.
Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 21, 2011

Down to a Soundless Sea
by Thomas Steinbeck

  • Publication Date: October 1, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345455762
  • ISBN-13: 9780345455765