Well, I seem to be on something of a run of wonderful reads at the moment! Today’s post is on a recently reissued and much neglected book which has been languishing in obscurity for decades – and I have no idea why… The book concerned is “Gentleman Overboard” by Herbert Clyde Lewis, and it owes its welcome reappearance to the efforts of Brad Bigelow, founder of the Neglected Books blog. Brad reviewed the book back in 2009; since then it’s gradually been creeping back into print in translation, but it’s taken until 2021 for it to reappear in the language it was written! Rather wonderfully, it’s the launch book for a new series ‘Recovered Books’, from Boiler House Press, inspired by Brad’s passion for rediscovering lost works – how wonderful is that!

“Gentleman Overboard” was first published in 1937, and author Lewis had a tragic life; a restless man, moving from place to place, job to job, he ended his life alone and in obscurity in 1950, having been blacklisted by Hollywood. Reading his book, it’s really hard to see why it’s been so forgotten, even taking into account the fashions and vagaries of publishing, as it really is quite a marvellous read.

As the book opens, a man steps on a spot of grease and fall off a steamship into the Pacific Ocean; this is the gentleman of the title, one Henry Preston Standish, and the word ‘gentleman’ is of prime importance here. Henry is comfortably off, living a respectable life as a partner in a firm of stockbrokers; happily married to Olivia, with two children, he is a supremely careful ordinary man:

He did everything carefully. His apartment was always in spotless array, his larder full. He drank moderately, smoked moderately, and made love to his wife moderately; in fact, Standish was one of the worlds most boring men. Though psychologists may assert it is impossible, Standish was neither an introvert nor an extrovert.

Yet despite all his material comforts, something is not quite right. Henry decides he needs to travel to refresh himself and his health, and the first voyage stretches into more than one. It is on a later voyage that the slip happens, and Henry is left afloat in the middle of the Pacific to await rescue and consider his life…

More than this I shall not say, because part of the genius of the book is the gradual revealing of Henry’s personality and past, as well as his realisation of the predicament he’s in. The fact that Henry is such a gentleman is what makes up who he is and also contributes to the tragedy which befalls him. Alas, his response to his fall is conditioned by his class…

Standish‘s thoughts during these seconds were strangely enough more concerned with shame them with fear. Men of Henry Preston Standish‘s class did not go around falling off ships in the middle of the ocean; it just was not done, that was all. It was a stupid, childish, unmannerly thing to do, and if there had been anybody’s pardon to beg, Standish would have begged it.

His personality has been so set that he fails to call out for help as it’s not the thing a gentleman would do, which turns out to be a major mistake. Because he’s such an undistinguished character, nobody aboard ship notices he’s missing at first, and his fellow passengers (as wonderfully portrayed as the main character) continue about their business as if nothing has changed. As Henry fights to stay afloat, physically and emotionally shedding the trappings of his previous life, the book builds to a perhaps unexpected climax which really knocked the stuffing out of me.

… now he saw clearly that life was precious; that everything else, love, money, fame, was a sham when compared with the simple goodness of just not dying.

I really don’t have enough superlatives for this little gem of a book. The story itself is only around 120 pages, yet it crams so much in. The writing is crisp and excellent, and Lewis nails his protagonist’s character quite brilliantly, portraying vividly the changes Henry goes through as time passes while he treads water. His character is so firmly delineated at the start of the book that it’s somehow a bit of a shock to see his attitudes adjusting along with his situation. It really is a powerful story and I simply cannot believe it’s been unavailable and unrecognised for so long.

I feel I must mention how beautifully produced the new edition is; Boiler House Press are part of the UEA Publishing Project (so my neck of the woods), and the book is wonderfully presented, with French flaps, lovely images inside the covers and flaps, and stunning cover design. There is an excellent foreword by George Szirtes and a detailed afterword provided by Brad which explores the author’s life and the afterlife of his masterpiece. And I do feel masterpiece is the right word here, as the book explores so much more than you might expect; the meaning of life, how to cope with isolation and what is exactly the most important thing to human beings. All of this is compressed into 120 or so unforgettable pages, and I can only thank those involved for rescuing it… If you get a book token for Christmas, buy this; if you don’t buy it anyway. It’s wonderful!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many, many thanks! You can read Brad’s original review here)