Probably all of us have seen the classic Mister Roberts play or movie. The book is better. It captures the mind-numbing tedium much better, and the humor is scorched with irony and paradoxical pain. The hero, Mr. Roberts, spends his time on board trying to leave the safety of his cargo transport's milk-runs, filing one transfer request after another, seeking the action of a war-ship.
The author, Thomas Heggens, was discovered drowned in his bathroom in 1949, an apparent suicide, despite, or perhaps because of, the huge financial success of the book and play.
The Reluctant was a cargo ship engaged to carry trucks and toothpaste on a regular run "from Tedium to Apathy and back; about five days each way. It makes an occasional trip to Monotony, and once it made a run all the way to Ennui, a distance of about two thousand miles from Tedium." It's staffed with wonderful characters. Ensign Keith, the Boston bluenose, believes the Navy commandments he learned in boot camp about officers being gentlemen, and he sing1ehandedly tries to remake the crew into something resembling a regulation Navy vessel- until the famous jungle juice incident. Lieutenant Roberts is a born leader, able to move easily among the enlisted men as well as the officers; competent, he wants nothing more than to get out of this phantom Navy and into the real war. He is hated by the captain for his ability. He is the instigator of many of the famous practical jokes played on the captain. The doctor is simultaneously a great medico and a loony quack, which would depend on the quantity of grain alcohol he had imbibed the night before. He might or might not prescribe aspirin for athlete's foot.
The book has several humorous moments: the discovery by one of the visiting nurses that she and her colleagues have been surreptitiously spied on by men on the Reluctant using the powerful range finder telescopes; the accidental firing of a live shell that nearly took the mast off a friendly ship after a party that somehow got a little out of hand; and the question whether throwing the captain's palm tree s over the side would result in their replacements being squared or doubled (figure that one out).
But war is overwhelmingly tragic and Roberts gets his wish. He is transferred to a destroyer. His former shipmates learn of his death during a Kamikaze attack just before the announcement of the end of the war. It wipes the smile right off your face.
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