In Hazard by Richard Hughes falls neatly into some of the “man vs.” plot categories: man vs. nature, man vs. technology with a little man vs. himself tossed in for good measure. It tells the story of a British cargo ship, the Archimedes, caught in a seemingly endless hurricane as the ship makes for the Panama Canal from the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.
The story, set in 1929, takes place between the two world wars, and, in fact, was originally published in 1938. The current publication is a re-release as part of New York Review of Books’ Classics series. As Hughes says in an afterword written years after the initial publication, “the fading smell of remembered death in Britain was just beginning to be replaced by a new stench that was death prefigured.”
If it weren’t for Hughes’ afterword, it would be easy for AP English teachers to seize on the book as an metaphor for the onset of World War II. The Archimedes caught helplessly in the storm even though some signs of the disaster were evident. The British ship eventually rescued by an American vessel. Hughes denies the allegory, saying his book is symbol, which is “never concerned primarily with the future qua future but with a much more timeless kind of truth.”
The book is almost too neatly divided in half. The first half all plot and storm; the second, character development. For a modern reader accustomed to getting these two simultaneously, the book can be a difficult read. It takes a few chapters to feel comfortable with the mid-20th century writing.
The ship is the main character of the first half. The reader is taken on a tour of the vessel and its technologic advances explained in detail, along with explanations of where and how the cargo is stowed and hints of the tensions between the crew and officers, the English and Chinese, the engine room staff and the above-deck staff. Characters seem interchangeable at this point. When the storm hits and the ship’s technology disabled, it’s easy to lose track of what petty officer is doing what. But by this point, the ship in peril story has captured the reader’s attention and moves quickly. Hughes’ describes the events beautifully. When the ship reaches the eye of the hurricane, it becomes the only “land” for countless birds and insects. As the crew emerges to survey the damage to the ship, “[t]he officers were barefoot, and as they walked they kept stepping on live birds—they could not help it. I don’t want to dwell on this, but I must tell you what things were like, and be done with it. You would feel the delicate skeleton scrunch under your feet: but you could not help it, and the gummed feathers hardly fluttered.
No bird, even crushed, or half-crushed, cried.”
As the Archimedes is pulled back into the storm, the book abruptly changes. Detailed back stories and interior monologues for a junior officer and a Chinese laborer take center stage. The change in focus is jarring. If the character information had come earlier or been woven into the story of the storm, it could have been appreciated and helped to move the overall story forward. If the back stories had focused on the chief engineer who is central to the first and last sentences of the book, it may have worked better. As it is, the effect pulls the reader out of the story and feels an unnecessary interruption as the reader just wants to find out if and how the Archimedes survives.
Once the character pieces are finished, the rest of the book feels like an extended denouement. The storm ends; the American ship appears. It’s another fast change from the slow pace of the character information.
The problems with tone and pacing could be a product of the 70-year time difference between the original and current release. Each half of the book could be a fine read on its own. It’s the harsh combination that creates problems.