Nominated for this year's Giller Prize, Wayne Johnston's finely wrought sixth novel, The Navigator of New York, is loosely based on the historical polar expeditions of Dr. Frederick A. Cook and Commander Robert Peary, and the controversy in the early twentieth century that arose over their competing claims to have been the first to reach the North Pole.
Yet, at a crucial moment in the novel, Dr. Cook, one of the primary characters, muses that "There is no fixed North Pole per se, for the ice is always moving. The north polar explorer seeks after what is merely an illusion." Given the fact that both Dr. Cook and his arch-rival, Peary, go to great lengths to be the first to arrive at an apparently shifting destination, this realization is not a little ironic. The acknowledgment is of striking importance, however, not only for Dr. Cook but also to the thematic interests which govern the novel. If ostensibly about Arctic exploration and the contest to be the first to discover the North Pole, the book is also about the illusive¨and elusive¨nature of mapping one's origins and personal identity. As one of the characters remarks about Dr. Cook himself, "(h)ere is a man whose true nature no one knows."
The title gestures toward these thematic concerns. Devlin Stead is the story's protagonist and one of the "navigators of New York," yet his name, his public identity, and his private sense of self frequently come under pressure as the result of new information about his parents, divulged to him (or to others) at various junctures in the novel. Divided into six books, the novel opens with his aunt's account of Devlin's family history as it unfolds on "the edge of civilization," St. John's, and of the death of his purportedly biological parents; her narrative is followed by how he comes to be labelled as "the Stead boy" by a community that heightens, even enforces, his sense of isolation and abandonment after his mother's death; it then shifts to his journey to New York. Devlin decides to go there in part because he is determined to dispense with an identity that has been imposed on him. He also wishes to locate the residence of Dr. Cook, who reveals that he is his true father in a series of letters that are so articulate, poetic, and sensitive that, by comparison, they put last year's winner of the Giller prize, Clara Callan, to shame.
Johnston thus returns to the geographical parameters established in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1998) to delineate the story of Devlin's exploration as Dr. Cook's protTgT and his efforts to gain an understanding of who his parents really are. With an extraordinary sense of craftsmanship, Johnston overlays Dr. Cook's fervent determination to "get (to the North Pole) first" with Devlin's quest for the truth about his origins. As if moving like Dr. Cook from ice floe to ice floe, Devlin travels from Manhattan to Brooklyn at Dr. Cook's instructions; simultaneously, he endeavours to retrace the steps of his father, step-father, and mother, whose life was unalterably affected by a visit to New York before his birth. And if the North Pole is a shifting mass, New York also seems to be in constant flux: "Buildings seem to go up," Dr. Cook writes in one of his first few letters to Devlin, "as fast as they come down."
Bewildered by a series of Dr. Cook's admissions about his mother's life and death, however, Devlin is obliged to confront and reshape the narrative he has fashioned for himself about his own life. He learns to reconcile his father's moral decisions and motives, which "are not as pure" as Dr. Cook initially leads Devlin to believe, with the love he has for the man in spite of how Devlin's sense of personal integrity is challenged. These admissions also serve to create suspense and draw out the tale at a pace that is kept in check by Johnston's expert hand¨he never permits the tale to get away from him and, notwithstanding the allusions to and similarities with Melville's Moby Dick, never digresses for extensive periods without returning to or at least acknowledging the novel's main impetus.
Devlin himself is a Dickensian character whose resemblance to David Copperfield is at moments striking. Orphaned at a young age, he also attempts to piece together his history in order to understand who he is¨a task that is complicated by Dr. Cook's proclivity toward self-mythologizing that makes one recall, even if oddly, The Great Gatsby. Equally affected by the sea, Devlin is attracted to it at a young age because his mother drowned there and because, as he initially believes, it lured his father away from the family. The sea, for Devlin, is an elemental place that gives rise to everything fierce and beautiful. All that can be experienced in nature is subsumed by it :
Sky. Wind. Light. Air. Cold. Grey. Far. Slat. Smell. Now all these words meant something they had never meant before, and the word sea contained them all. The word sea spread outward in my mind, flooding all its chambers until, by that one word, every word I knew was changed.
He is thus also fascinated by Dr. Cook's correspondence¨which commences with the startling assertion, "I think constantly of you"¨and then feels compelled to become an explorer with him.
Johnston is a sophisticated writer whose sense of diction is exact: all the more reason that his editors ought to have paid closer attention to such an egregious error (among others) as the confusion of Mrs. Cook for Mrs. Peary in chapter nineteen. Johnston demonstrates his sense of precision and remarkable deftness in his ability to render a range of scenes that are breath-taking, visually evocative and sensuous, from the carnivalesque port in New York to the lavish, opulent Manhattan high society balls to the austere and yet exquisitely beautiful Arctic expanses. Even as Dr. Cook declares that an "opaque, impenetrable wall divides those who have travelled in the polar regions from those who have not," that impenetrable wall dissipates under the mastery of Johnston's navigational abilities as writer: he facilitates the readers' imaginative journey to the Arctic and depicts these scenes with the utmost clarity and credibility.
The Navigator of New York is an extraordinary literary achievement that meshes historically-based public dramas with more personal but equally important internal struggles. Johnston ought to be commended for such a fine accomplishment: it is a novel that was not only brilliantly conceived, it is also remarkably executed. ˛