BOOKS: Alberto Manguel enjoys a stationary odyssey on the Brooklyn waterfront
The Ordinary Seaman

by Francisco Goldman, Faber, pounds 15.99

is a contemporary odyssey - the chronicle of a voyage that will not take place, an adventure story that is all beginning and no end, an urban sea-yarn with no sea. The source, according to Goldman himself, was an item in the New York press, reporting that 17 Latin-American sailors, abandoned by their ship's authorities, had lived for months in a rat-infested, unheated hull on the Brooklyn waterfront. Goldman interviewed the sailors; one gave him his own 12-page account of the ordeal, urging Goldman to make use of it. Ten years later, Goldman did.

The result is a brilliantly imagined recreation of their sufferings set against a social atlas of contemporary America: Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba, Argentina and, of course, the United States. The sailors' stories unfold in backward glances and forward flashes so that every present moment wavers between regret and foreboding, brutal glimpses of the Sandinista war and dreams of a better life.

One sailor, Bernardo, dies of a gangrenous leg; another, Esteban, escapes into the city where fate rewards him with a haircut and the love of a Mexican manicurist; others drag out their existences through theft, through erotic fantasies or by drugging themselves with kerosene fumes. No one can help these "ordinary seamen" move on but themselves: neither the Ship Visitor who takes professional pity on the stranded men, nor the Reverend Kathy Roundtree who has assumed the role of "the Port of New Jersey and New York's Father Brown", and certainly not the god-like and ambiguous Captain who professes more knowledge of herbal medicine than seafaring craft.

Nor will anyone avenge them. In our time, the guilty go unpunished. "Nowadays any scum can hide from God," says the Reverend Roundtree. "All you need is, whatever, a flag of convenience, brass plate incorporation." In this Odyssey gods and mortals, kings and enchantresses, Cyclops and Penelopes are small, inglorious, everyday creatures, neither less horrible nor less fate-bound than their illustrious predecessors.

The most striking aspect of is its language, a baroque "Espangles" coming into its own: "Ay no, muchacha, it hurts. It hurts just to remember that, just my hand touching your warm skin through a dress. A tightening in my throat, va, pues." Anyone who has spent any time in New York, Los Angeles or Miami will recognise (with either vivas of approval or shit, mans of regret) the rich, rhythmical prose of those Pan-American streets, which Goldman so deftly handles. Memories, daydreams, visions of sex and death, descriptions of war, moments of half-magic and nightmares - all build up the waiting-time, fill the empty hull of the skeleton ship half in Spanish, half in English.

It is true that other writers have made use of the doomed journey, notably B Traven in The Death Ship, Katherine Anne Porter in Ship of Fools and Julio Cortzar in The Prizes, but in these novels both the vessel and its voyagers seem too obviously and dogmatically symbolic. Goldman's ship is less imposing, its adventures (or lack of adventures) less literary. Precisely for that reason, the novel suggests other readings besides the mere tale of a drawn-out waiting. One is mythical: the story of how a society comes into being. Abandoned by the bosses who summoned them, transformed into outsiders, given neither permission to enter the city nor a purpose to leave it, the sailors are forced to form their own community, dream up their own history, create their own leaders and, of course, their own outsiders in a latino version of the settlement of America.

Another reading is political. can be read as a parable about the inability of the most powerful city in the most powerful country in the Western world to give a mission and a purpose to those washed up on her shores, to find for them a place in its national ambitions, to fulfil the promise engraved on its Statue of Liberty. In fact, it is almost without irony that the statue of the torch-bearing Lady becomes, for the sailors, an emblem of their own immobility in a forecast made by Bernardo, the one sailor who must in the end, like all prophets, die: "When that statue walks, chavalos, this ship will sail". The ship's ultimate fate (which mustn't be revealed) neither confirms nor denies Bernardo's prophecy.