April 6, 2011 4:01:00 PM
The dazzling "Moby Dick" is not simply about whaling. Melville's grand and exhilarating volume is about good and evil, nature, the futility and magnificence of human endeavor, and literature itself, to list just a few subjects. It incorporates everything, but Melville himself wrote (in his first person character of Ishmael), "This whole book is but a draught - nay, but the draught of a draught."
Donavan Hohn surely knows the line; he is a journalist, an editor at Harper's and obviously a Melville fan. But he doesn't quote it in his "Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them" (Viking), though you might accuse him of a Melville-like tendency to cram everything in within that subtitle.
Indeed, as the subtitle says, "Moby-Duck" is not simply about bath toys, but it is also not only about the people looking for them. It is about trying to determine fact from fable, and using science to do so; about the place of humans in the natural world and the ways they have made it unnatural; about how little we can know for sure and how great are the mysteries out there, especially on the sea; and about the love of humanity for little plastic ducks.
It is also about the nature of questing in general. Ishmael tells us he goes to sea "whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul." Hohn may not have found himself getting so misanthropic; he had a job he loved, and a wife likewise, and a baby on the way, and he didn't know what "pelagic" meant or what were the "six degrees of freedom," the different ways a ship might move while afloat.
But he did feel a need to "refresh my capacity for awe" or to "turn a map into a world." So when he heard about the container ship that dropped the ducks overboard, he originally thought he might "interview a few oceanographers, talk to a few beachcombers, read up on ocean currents and Arctic geography" and then write an account of the ducks' progress while sitting at his desk. "But questions, I've learned since, can be like ocean currents.
Wade in a little too far and they can carry you away. Follow one line of inquiry and it will lead you to another, and another." He could no more stay away from going to sea (repeatedly, on different crafts with different crews, courses and goals) than he could resist writing about the wealth of subjects presented to him. We are lucky; crammed with funny stories, exuberant prose, and enticing, scary facts, "Moby-Duck" is a grand journey of discovery.
Where did those ducks come from? It will do no good for Hohn to record merely that they dropped off the container ship "Ever Laurel" on Jan. 10, 1992. Where they came from was the Pearl River Delta in China, which made the toys for a U.S. firm called First Years Inc. (There are deeper levels, too, as Melville would have been the first to have pointed out, and Hohn tells us about polymers and paints as well.) And Hohn goes to China, looking at the sinister production means of giving us jolly toys.
Of course he broadens the examination to the wider implications of China manufacturing many of our favorite commercial products. He reminds us of the fright we had in 2007 when the beloved Thomas the Tank Engine was made in China into a toy with lead paint that poisoned kids who put the toys in their mouths. "It wasn't merely the lead in the paint that scared us," he writes, "but the magnitude of our ignorance." What happened exactly to the "Ever Laurel" proves hard to trace. The shipping lines don't like to advertise such losses, and no one really knows how many containers go into the drink every year, but is maybe 2,000, or maybe 10,000.
It isn't just yellow ducks we get from China, nor from that toy firm, nor from that container spill. Much else was lost as the "Ever Laurel" was tossed in hurricane-like winds with 36-feet-high waves in the north Pacific. In fact, every yellow duck came in a four-pack including also a blue turtle, a green frog, and a red beaver. But everyone remembered about the yellow ducks, and in fact the story got repeated that all the toys were yellow ducks, drifting all over the oceans. There is a reason that it was the yellow ducks that were celebrated in this way, and not, say, the red beavers: Ernie. "Back in the 1970's, when I was a child," Hohn recalls, "rubber ducks were wilder than they are now. There was nothing iconic or nostalgic about them."
His own bathtub duck "resembled a Hummel figurine that had spouted a beak." Of course this gives him an opportunity to broaden his discourse inclusively into a general history of childhood toys. The old exotic rubber ducks were edged out by the bright yellow plastic version with the huge, almost spherical head because of Ernie's memorable song on Sesame Street ("Rubber Duckie, you're the one/ You make bathtime lots of fun"). If Ernie started the craze, what is there that continues it? Hohn tries an explanation: "What misanthrope, what damp, drizzly November of a sourpuss, upon beholding a rubber duck afloat, does not feel a Crayola ray of sunshine brightening his gloomy heart?"
The yellow ducks are jolly, and everyone likes them, and anyone would be happy to pick one up on the beach. There is lots of other junk out there, however. Hohn's trip to Hawaii brings him to an encounter with the notorious Pacific Garbage Patch.
The patch isn't dense, with plastic furniture of all sorts floating around in it. Some is floating on the surface, and some is just below, and all of it eventually degrades due to the sun and sea. Tiny pieces of plastic can return to a beach and serve as sand; there are such beaches now that have multicolored plastic bits instead of sand grains. Other tiny pieces enter the food chain, and maybe these unnatural contaminants will be concentrated as they go up the chain.
We simply do not know what we are doing to the oceans and the creatures within and to ourselves. Even so, plastic pollution is no one's idea of the greatest environmental threat the oceans face. Global warming, farm run-off, overfishing, and others get mention here. This is not a book to promote optimism any more than its antecedent was.
The flotsam from the container ship changed the ducks (and the others) from bathtub toys to oceanographic tools. They are just the sort of thing beachcombers strive to attain (having surely had enough of water-bottles and the ubiquitous Styrofoam abstractions). Some ducks washed up in Alaska, and of course Hohn goes to partake in the searches by intrepid beachcombers there. Some have been found in Hawaii. Some got trapped in Arctic ice. Can it be that some have made the Northwest Passage and have entered the Atlantic?
Ostensibly that is what Hohn sets out to find in these pages, and, well, mysteries remain, although there would have been plenty of mysteries even if there had been a firm answer to the question. If he had confined his book just to the happy accident of ducks being oceanic markers, it would have been informative and cheery; as it is, taking in far larger subjects, there are parts here that are mysterious and worrisome, but it must be said that much is mysterious and joyful. Who can understand completely, for instance, the lure of putting messages into a bottles and the bottles into the sea?
He gets this scientific task on one of his expeditions, and a crewmember lumbers after him to ask sheepishly, "Can I throw some?" "Moby Dick" itself says, "But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed." Hohn has well chased his demon phantom yellow duck, and is neither trapped in a maze or whelmed. His demon has brought a good round of entertainment a
Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.