Review

The Yellow Sailor

by Steve Weiner



There will be no middle ground of opinion on this, Weiner's second
novel. The more adventuresome literati will respond to the brief
tome written in short, fragmented, hallucinatory blasts, while
others will simply scratch their heads as they desperately go in
search of a plot or meaningful characterization. In either case,
what on the surface is an intriguing idea for a novel rife with
possibilities ends up a frustrating and sometimes empty read, as if
it were the outline for a much better book.

After The Yellow Sailor, a German merchant marine ship, sets
sail and is grounded on the East Prussian coast near the start of
World War I, Weiner tracks the fates of some of those abroad in
their travels through war-torn Europe. Ship owner and flamboyantly
homosexual Julius Bernai continues his decadent ways, only to face
a crisis of conscience; the electrician Jacek finds work in a mine
and becomes involved with a murder; and boisterous but dim brothers
Karl and Alois do...well, not much of anything, and their
characters seem almost needless, not even supplying the comic
relief for which they were probably intended.

If the novel has a protagonist, it is 19-year-old Nicholas Bremml,
the green sailor who gets some light hazing from the rest of the
crew early on. After being ejected onto land, he falls in love with
a prostitute (one of the most sinful literary cliches), then
bounces from hooker to hooker to ease his pain, sells "magic
spells" in Prague's Jewish-run black market and ends up signing on
as crew to another ship. Ultimately, his tortuous inner monologues
and extensive hand-wringing read like an unintentional parody of a
Dostoyevsky anti-hero.

Weiner decides that he wants to cover a lot of ground here ---
thoughts and philosophical musings on love, sex, death, religion,
war, and society --- but he doesn't (nor do his characters) have
much of meaning to say about them in their vignettes. The recurring
theme of homosexuality among many of the characters --- whether
real or as a derogatory labeling --- works with the Bernai story,
but seems out of place with the others.

Again, it must be stressed that THE YELLOW SAILOR is purposefully
written in this offbeat style (which, if it were a film, would be
shot in black and white, probably by a disciple of Fritz Lang) and
that should be clear before the book is cracked --- many will
simply be unable to grasp Weiner's style or absorb his intentions.
But even when read in that spirit, its brevity and disjointedness
work more against than for the narrative as a whole. THE YELLOW
SAILOR sinks under the weight of its ambitions, sometimes saddled
with a light cargo of pretentiousness.

Reviewed by Bob Ruggiero on January 24, 2011

The Yellow Sailor
by Steve Weiner

  • Publication Date: October 29, 2001
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Overlook Hardcover
  • ISBN-10: 158567169X
  • ISBN-13: 9781585671694