Delilah is a novel about a United States Navy destroyer just before the start of World War Two. Goodrich takes the reader into the day by day workings of the ship and the hearts and minds of the men.
The book has echoes of Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' (a study of human brutality) and 'Lord Jim' (pride and prestige as a 'code' of integrity) and uses symbolic and rhetoric means developed by Melville via Shakespeare (the ship Delilah as a woman, the stars as a symbol of the transcendent, the ocean as the engagement with the feminine flow of aliveness, from which the men themselves are cut off by duty and pride).
Notable to a reader, but irrelevant from the novel itself, is the 2013 point of view: the colonialism and imperialism of the crew regarding their filipino peons; the shocking absence of any workplace health and safety regulations; the abusive and macho culture of unquestioning obedience; the differing notions of professionalism and the greater predominance of notions of personal integrity over professionalism; and the fragile and superficial ego structures of the men on board. This comparison is drawn not to say the world of 2013 is so much better, but simply to point the differences.
The key to the novel is the fragility and vulnerability of the men to the ship, nature, and their own instincts. Specifically, the men are driven by pride and prestige. Ego and posturing predominates. Rage and lustfulness off ship erupt when the pressure of egotism gets too great. The entire system is intransparent and ritualistic; the men are slaves, and must resort to pathetic signs of personal dignity like where their cot is placed to gain some sense of personal significance. All intimate communication is censored dramatically by egotism, and friendship is a function of role and status rather than common virtues or interests.
This sense of hysterical masculinity often comes to the surface: each character ruminates over interminable fears of dishonor and considerations of pride. Goodrich shows these ruminations in detail; this feeling of tension and eventually hysteria is the result of the physically unsafe and emotionally unfeeling reality of the ship life, where no due regard for the body or soul is given.
The writing is interesting, as is the tone. Let's examine the writing first. The diction is simple and poetic and manly. But the sentences are longer when the writer wishes to express emotion, and shorter when he is reporting. The downside of the writing is that the same point will be repeated two or three times. Sometimes the effect is of an incantation, creating an emotional connection; but mostly a slowing, an impatience, and a slight distancing of sympathy from the characters are the effect. It is a book that demands leisure, but frankly, as we'll see later in this review, it does not warrant that investment of time.
Now, to the tone. Reportage alternates with interior reflection. Consistently Goodrich's interior writing refers to the pride and ego dominating the souls of the men. Their inner lives, it seems to me, are impoverished and narrow, but Goodrich seems to find interesting the tedium of his characters' posturings for status. I do not.
There is a passing reference in chapter 12 to a liberal education. Warrington stashes a variety of good and great books in his locker. This is not to suppose this incident will be used in any way, but simply to allow Goodrich to establish that in chapter 13 that Warrington reads the Meditations of the Stoic Marcus Aurelius, which in turn establishes that he is a man of virtue, which in turn establishes that he is as tough, prideful, and ego-driven as the rest of the men. The only difference from the other men is that Warrington is prideful in an intellectual way rather than an instinctual way.
The overarching story is of the preparations of the ship Delilah for World War Two. Until the second last page the reason is unknown for these preparations by the crew. They flail about with no idea what's going on for the whole book. Delilah, the ship, goes about some missions, gets refitted; the book features some episodes of brutish incidents which might be salvaged from the whole as short stories. In the end some sailor, O'Connel, suffers from alcoholic insanity and has to be violently subdued by an officer, Fitzpatrick.
Does that sound like a novel to you? It sounds like half a novel. In the opening inscription of the novel, Goodrich promised and failed to deliver on part two, the actual ending with World War Two. This is like cutting the Battle of Borodino out of Tolstoy's War and Peace, or excluding the hunt of Moby Dick from Melville's novel. It is the fatal weakness in an otherwise strong, masculine novel.
Let's examine Delilah clearly as a book among books: if we have two people offering us a novel, one complete and one incomplete; and if the person with the incomplete novel promises to complete it and does not complete it, then which person should we trust? Clearly the one who has completed their novel. And the one who has not completed the novel has in fact not written a novel, in the sense of a whole novel, but only written half of a novel.
Marcus Goodrich at the start of his novel Delilah promised the reader he would finish the novel, and he did not keep his promise. He lived fifty more years after the book was published and he failed to keep his promise. It is a good half of a novel, but it is not a whole novel, and cannot be judged as a whole novel.
So, what we need to do with Marcus Goodrich's Delilah is not read it. We should avoid Delilah not because it is not good, but because the writer did not keep his promise to the reader to complete the book. The writer did not keep his promises in good faith with the reader, and therefore should not have readers. I recommend avoiding this book and reading any of the other magnificent books of the period but this one.
I will conclude with a magnificent piece of Proustian writing from near the end of the book, a moment of calm before O'Connel's alcoholic insanity from the character that seems to bear some of the writers' consciousness, Warrington:
"He turned his gaze upward to the sky in a gesture that might have appeared to an onlooker as one aimed at detecting the cause of the intimidation. His gaze encountered no fabulous, predatory hovering, nothing but the infinite blackness; save where a small, sharply defined, uneven rift in it disclosed, as above the top of some chasm in the universe, and at a greater distance that he ever had imagined or dreamed, a few eerily vivid stars that gave no light, that hung there, in the sombre blue clarity above that unthinably deep hole in black nothingness, looking awesomely, three-dimensionally like monstrous speck of reflective dust, like spheres, glittering and iridescent, of frozen ash, like swirls of flaming gas towering higher than the world, all unconvincingly decreased by the illusion of the visible distance, frightful in itself, to a size no greater than that of animal eyes peering from thickets on summer nights."