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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Gentleman Overboard

Herbert Clyde Lewis

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To purchase Gentleman Overboard

Title: Gentleman Overboard
Author: Herbert Clyde Lewis
Genre: Novel
Written: 1937
Length: 155 pages
Availability: Gentleman Overboard - US
Gentleman Overboard - UK
Gentleman Overboard - Canada
El caballero que cayó al mar - España
directly from: Boiler House Press - UK
  • With an Introduction by George Szirtes
  • With an Afterword by Brad Bigelow

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Our Assessment:

A- : a well-turned little work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Listener B+ 21/7/1937 Edwin Muir
The NY Times Book Rev. B 23/5/1937 Charles Poore
Sunday Times A 11/7/1937 Ralph Straus
Time . 31/5/1937 .
The Times . 16/7/1937 J.S.

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is genuinely terrifying in a quiet way, for it makes unsparing use of two simple properties, the Pacific Ocean and the little man afloat on it. (...) This story is a good test for the nerve of the reader, but what he will get from the test it is hard to say, apart from a suspicion that life is a much more hazardous thing than he thought. But it is excellently told." - Edwin Muir, The Listener

  • "In form it is a novella; in content it is a review under pressure of a pretty stuffy life; in conception it is brightly promising, and in execution it is more methodical than stirring. The idea, certainly is exciting enough. (...) The story, then, is simply a flight of fancy. It is an entertaining one too -- which is in itself significant. It could have been considerably more of a searching commentary on Manhattan man faced with the slow torture of death on a placid, unhurried, devouring sea. But Standish seems to be undergoing an experiment rather than an experience." - Charles Poore, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It is an astonishingly vivid little story which takes hold of you at once. Indeed, at times you feel that you must have fallen into the water yourself. Now you are angry, now incredulous. (...) The tension becomes painful, nightmarish, unbearable. But I have said enough: this is a book to be read." - Ralph Straus, Sunday Times

  • "With as much calm authority as though he had fallen overboard himself, Herbert Clyde Lewis tells just what it feels like. His hair-raising little tour de force is the more effective for being so quietly, matter-of-factly written." - Time

  • "Mr. Lewis has gauged most accurately the point at which pleasure should change to pain and comedy alternate with despair. Both on the ship, in the hours before the New York gentleman's disappearance is noticed, and with Standish in the lonely ocean, the author has described the events in an accomplished style." - J.S., The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Gentleman Overboard delivers exactly what the title promises: a man -- a gentleman -- falls overboard (to find himself then alone, with his thoughts, at sea -- for as long as he can remain afloat). Indeed, he -- and the reader -- are plunged in with the opening sentence:

     When Henry Preston Standish fell headlong into the Pacific Ocean, the sun was just rising on the eastern horizon.
       Standish is just the sort of person one might expect, given his very proper name. He is thirty-five, married, with two young children, and has an apartment on Central Park West; he went to Yale and is now a partner in the "honorable stock brokerage firm" of Pym, Bingley, and Standish. He always had a comfortable, secure life; from childhood on: "he had had the best of everything without realizing it was the best; taking it all for granted in an unimaginative sort of way". He is, in fact, the epitome of the modern (well, interwar) gentleman -- to the extent that: "Breeding had taken the bright colors out of him, leaving him as uninteresting as a canvas in gray".
       Generally, it takes a brave author to present a novel whose protagonist can be described as: "one of the world's most boring men", but of course the point of Gentleman Overboard is this juxtaposition of extremes: the plainest of (gentle)men in extremis, bobbing quite hopelessly in the wide and soon empty (as the S.S. Arabella recedes into the distance and beyond) expanse of the Pacific.
       The set-up is inspired: Standish's situation is dire, but not immediately calamitous; the water is warm enough for him to float relatively easily, at least for a while -- and there's some hope: his absence will, inevitably, be noted and he has good reason to believe that efforts will be made to effect his rescue. There's no immediate resolution here -- after he falls overboard, the ship does chug on, out of view -- but the potential for a happy ending remains. And, as the protagonist himself observes:
It was such a magnificent story to tell, if only he could be rescued ! The world needed the story: a tale of courage in the face of the most elemental kind of disaster, a tale of hope being nourished by a stout heart.
       The novel does not focus solely on Standish's time in the ocean, the narrative also returning repeatedly to what is happening on-board, as well as filling in bits of recent past -- including explaining how Standish got here. For all his boring, proper life, Standish had suffered a kind of mid-life crisis and realized he needed a break. He had set out, on his own, traveling -- leading him also, on yet another spur of the moment, to book passage on the Arabella, going from Honolulu to Panama. It wasn't a widely-traveled route -- yet another unfortunate aspect of his accident, since he then couldn't expect any other ships to be passing by -- and the ship had few passengers, with only eight others on board. Lewis describes the first few days on board as well, before they reach the middle of nowhere where Standish slips overboard, with Standish pleased as punch about everything, happily reflecting: "The whole trip really was splendid".
       The sketches of the others on the ship, passengers and crew, are also very well drawn, and among the amusing parts of the book is Lewis' drawn-out explanation of just how everyone else on board could fail to notice for so long that Standish was no longer among them, a sum of small and unfortunate circumstances that delayed the realization that he'd gone overboard. (They do eventually realize it.)
       Much of the story does, however, also revolve around Standish in the water, where he has ample time to reflect on his situation and on his life. This, too, Lewis handles very well -- down to Standish, after a while, finding:
He realized all at once the awful thing about death by drowning in a calm blue sea -- the time on your hands to think and curse your fate, to feel so helplessly small and terrified, to watch the very marrow being sucked out of you.
       There's a delicate balance between the comic and the tragic in Gentleman Overboard, with Lewis adeptly shifting back and forth between the two and never getting too maudlin or sententious (or too broadly comic). He's so used to the easy, comfortable fit of it that Standish has difficulty getting out of his skin -- to the extent that, shortly after he hits the water, "Standish was doomed by his breeding to be a gentleman even at this moment", making it difficult for him to even raise a fuss and shout out 'Man overboard', in the hopes of attracting some attention before it is too late. Finding himself literally at sea does effect some change -- as made clear also by, for example, him taking his clothes off -- but whatever introspection his predicament allows for (and the limited amount he is capable of), there's no getting around, even for him, the fact that, entirely alone, he is, in all likelihood, also entirely doomed.
       Hitting the right notes, and not going on at too great length -- Gentleman Overboard is novella-length -- and with its shifts from Standish-in-the-water to the scenes on board helping to keep from bogging down, the novel is well-formed and presented, quite entirely a success. Gentleman Overboard is a very fine little melancholy work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 February 2022

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Gentleman Overboard: Reviews:

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About the Author:

       American author Herbert Clyde Lewis lived 1909 to 1950.

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© 2022 the complete review

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