In Hazard
by Richard Hughes (1938)
NYRB Classics (2008)
224 pp

Richard Hughes is a new author for me. It won’t be difficult to get through all of his novels because he only published four before he died: A High Wind in Jamaica (1929); In Hazard (1938); and only two parts of a planned trilogy of the Human Predicament, The Fox in the Attic (1961) and The Wooden Shepherdess (1973). All four of his books are published by NYRB Classics. I chose to begin my trek through his works with In Hazard because it was published by NYRB just this past month.

After writing his successful sea story High Winds in Jamaica, Hughes was asked to write a book on a recent ship that survived a horrendous hurricane. In Hazard is the result. In a nutshell, we briefly meet the crew and the ship, the “Archimedes.”

What else shall I tell you, to describe to you “Archimedes”? I say nothing of her brilliant paint-work, or the beauty of her lines: for I want you to know her, not as a lover knows a woman but rather as a medical student does. (The lover’s part can come later.)

And Hughes fulfills his promise to describe the ship in technical terms. To his credit, though, this is not boring at all. I don’t know how deep into technical language Hughes delves here and what he omitted, but I found it informative without stopping the story from moving forward. It’s all to describe how unlikely it is that such a ship would find itself unable to withstand even a mighty mighty storm. As the storm approaches, Hughes describes the wind patterns and the science behind hurricane-making. He even uses a footnote to describe the Earth’s rotation on its axis. Again, I didn’t find this to be bad judgment on his part at all. For all too soon that hurricane arrives in full force, and the crew must face up to the challenge and to their own humanity.

This is the best part of the novel: the inner mind of the crew as it reacts to this life-threatening storm. While we never get a lot of information about the characters, we come to know them from the way they hold up. Hughes employs great use of detail to describe the crew members psychology in brief episodes; for example, here is a glimpse at one of the young members of the crew:

It was like conversion — a physical conversion, not a spiritual one, for there was no morality nor resolution in it. It was just a sudden reversal of his physical appetites, so strong that he could not believe they would ever change. A loathing of girls, drink, tobacco; and all wrought by the wind.

Here is another quick glimpse that dives deeply into the character:

Philips, in a curious way, did not mind so much. He said the Lord’s Prayer once, and left it at that. His mind divided into two halves. One half was actually glad. For young Philips, for the first time, loved a girl with his whole soul; and she overlooked him. If he were drowned at sea, she would be told: his death would sadden her a little, even if his life was indifferent to her. There was no true living for him, he felt, except in her thoughts: then his death alone could secure him life, and even life for the few minutes she would give to thinking of him. Like many young lovers, he confused a girl with God: and he could almost imagine her now, watching him, out of the sky; watching him die, and pitying him.

Subtlety, as time moves on, the crew moves out of this initial fear. Sleep deprived, their minds begin to play tricks. I want to pull more quotes from the novel, but I liked stumbling on to them, so I’ll leave that pleasure for when you read the book. Some delusions are comical; others, haunting. All show a bit of the psychology of the characters as they respond to the circumstances.

And that brings me to one of my only complaints about the novel. These little episodes are great. But at one time, and one time only, Hughes delves into a minor character for pages and pages. True, in this short, quick book, it’s not that long really, but it felt very unbalanced. Perhaps it was the time, but Hughes uses this tangent to discuss Mao Zedong and the Hunan province. Yes, in a slight-of-hand Hughes manages to bring this back to the main narrative, but it didn’t flow well for me. Furthermore, in these types of passages the characters become disconnected with the hurricane. It’s rather like the ship is adrift and not being thrown up and down by deafening wind and waves. After finishing the book all of this melds together nicely in my mind. But while reading it, it just felt a bit unbalanced.

A final note about style: somehow, despite an extreme use of colons, Hughes manages to make this book feel like it is being passed orally. There’s a great deal of raw passion behind the text — at least, that’s how it felt. Hughes uses an undisclosed first-person narrator. The narrator is omniscient because it seems to know all that goes on in the characters’ heads, yet because the narrator is an “I” we get a more personal feel. I felt more present. I’ve been trying to understand exactly why this is what happened, but I’m failing. It is an interesting technique, however, and the result is something that feels at once disinterested and then disturbingly raw. The final chapter in the book is a great combination. I’ll be moving to Hughes’s other books in due time.

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