Ship of Fools

Ship of Fools - Katherine Anne Porter

A novel that took her over twenty years to write, 'Ship of Fools' is a large sprawling thing with many characters (you will be grateful for the passenger manifest at the beginning) and has a grand ambition to illustrate the world in the early 1930s in the form of a group of people on an ocean liner en route to Germany from Veracruz.

All of the people on board are guilty, with the possible exception of the mostly faceless, nameless people in steerage. But even they allow themselves to be herded from one destination to another, taking down the few who would thumb their noses at authority. In first class the passengers gravitate to groups or (in the case of a lone Jewish seller of Catholic furnishings) isolation, if sometimes unwillingly. They go along, they make the motions, they shrug off unpleasantness. The passengers in first class from the whimsical American artist Jenny to the unsavory racist Herr Rieber appear almost equally, by the end of the voyage, complicit in the shape the uncertain future is taking.

Jenny, the American divorcée Mrs. Treadwell (who I see as Porter herself), and the homely, unhappy Elsa are where most of my sympathies lay while reading, but the way narrative shifted it was possible to see them as others saw them, and most importantly, Porter gave them ample time for self-criticism and doubt. Even while they acknowledge what they're doing, they get in the way of their own happiness. Porter exactly describes those strong, temporary ties experienced by a group of people who must keep each other's company for a long period.

Some characters, particularly the Spanish dance/prostitution troupe, were given no leeway for positive action. The twins Ric and Rac are the best sociopathic children I've read since 'A High Wind in Jamaica '.I don't think 'Ship of Fools' is as universal an allegory as Porter was hoping for, but the book can be very funny and shocking, has a trove of well-drawn characters and scenes, and is certainly worth the attention it demands.