A few weeks ago I was browsing at Joseph Beth and picked up a book called “The Voyage of the Rose City” by John Moynihan. The cover intrigued me enough to read the jacket and I learned the book was by the son of former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. John Moynihan died accidentally when he was about forty and this was a book he drafted for a writing class in college; his mother found it among his things after he died and had it published. The book is John’s account of his summer as a crew member on a Merchant Marine ship at age twenty.
John, a pasty and gangly son of a Senator, pulls a few strings to get a spot as a crewman on a ship and sails off, looking for something, though we are never quite sure what. He’s not ashamed of the fact he’s a Senator’s son, but he’s warned not to advertise it. It’s not long before the entire boat knows of his pedigree (Senator Moynihan was famous and the name raised eyebrows) and for most of the first half of the book, he’s ostracized and treated poorly by the more experienced and jaded crew. It’s not quite a cliche, but it’s close. Despite his rocky start, he takes some tough assignments and manages to earn his stripes–by performing admirably at his job and by getting drunk and smoking dope with the crew.
The description of the journey is memorable and there are moments of chaos and danger on the ship that made the book live up to its billing as “An Adventure at Sea.” Yet the danger came in the form of small battles and not a giant war–that thousands of Merchant Marines must have had similar experiences made Moynihan’s tale on the ship somewhat less breathtaking. Moynihan describes many experiences that would have taught him important life lessons about work, relationships, teamwork, and risk. It’s a satisfying tale about growing up and the acquisition of manhood, but I was left feeling somewhat incomplete. We know these experiences changed him, but because this is a narrative of one summer and not a memoir of an entire life, we’re not quite sure how.
The first sentence of the preface, by John’s mother, Elizabeth, notes “John had a great wanderlust,” and maybe that’s the real reason I grabbed this book. It’s the fantasy of every young man, isn’t it, running off and finding yourself at the top of a mountain or on some trip across the world? I almost did that program where you spend a semester on a cruise ship just because I was overcome by wanderlust at one point. And hell, maybe it’s the fantasy of old men (and women) too. Starting over in a small town, taking a sojourn out to sea, or going for that long walk across some dangerous terrain.
I’m envious of Moynihan for having this experience. It’s not exactly the journey I would have chosen, but at least he went off the grid and into uncharted waters before he was too old and too responsible to take the risk.
Overall, I enjoyed this quick read. The characters on the ship are colorful but blend together somewhat and it was difficult to follow some of the technical aspects of the work they performed on the ship. The entire story (with the exception of one passage) is told first person, and the uncertainty, anxiety and innocence of a young man finding his way shines brightly in his words.
(The one passage not in first person was Moynihan’s account of a trip to a brothel while the ship was docked in Indonesia. It begins with the unattributed quote, “a whore is a seaman’s best friend.” Referring only to the activities of “the Americans” or “the crew,” it was a classy change in narration; perhaps he knew his mother would one day read his journal.)
As I alluded to earlier, my only wish is that the epilogue of the book had been written by John, so he could have reflected on how this journey changed his life. Readers are left with a touching note from his mother, but there is something tragic in not getting to see John on C-SPAN being interviewed about the trip that was in his mother’s words, “the most powerful and formative experience in his life.”
Thanks for reading.