Gentleman Overboard

A delightful quick read from 1937, a powerhouse book from a virtually unknown author. Our hero, Henry Preston Standish, slips from the rail of a boat steaming him and 8 other passengers from Honolulu to Panama, dropping him into the placid waters of the Pacific where he undergoes hours of mood changes believing then disbelieving in his rescue. The remaining passengers on the Arabella don’t discover his departure until several hours later, upon which they turn around. There is minor drama in the scene where the missionary couple lies to Mrs. Benson about Standish’s whereabouts in order to get her dripping wet red bathing suit quickly away from them. Standish’s immediate response upon slipping on the grease spot is to ensure he doesn’t become maimed by the boat propellors, and then he says (not shouts) “Man overboard,” because the Standishes don’t shout. He laughs, he rehearses several versions of his story as imagined to be told over dinner with scotch and soda in his Upper West Side apartment. He becomes frustrated that the boat doesn’t turn back because he desperately wants someone to tell this crazy story to. For hours he watches the sun’s relentless march, then dip into the sea, utter blackness. He realizes the despair that pushed him from the warm embrace of wife and children was that he’d always gotten whatever he wanted in life, had never suffered hunger, thirst (oh but now!), always smoked when he wanted and drank what he pleased. And now that he wanted most in the world to LIVE, and to know he was going to be disappointed by this desire, he could finally appreciate the things he took for granted. Everyone on board the ship assumes he jumped overboard as a suicide, murmuring their recollections of his semi-brooding ways. The 73 year old New England farmer who turned a great potato crop into a trip to see the world decided that Standish had left a clue a week ago when he told the farmer, “A pity a man can’t live like this forever, just feeling happy without having to think for a reason.” We bounce between the ship and Standish throughout the book, not quite sure until the last sentence how it will end.