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A Smart Dude Reads Moby-Dick: Episode 2

Editor’s note: as promised, Smart Dude Jake Bartolone returns with an update on his Moby-Dickery.  Check out the first installment here, and  comment away if you have thoughts on Jake’s questions (or his non-questions).  Avidly’s questions for  Jake  follow!


I’m now on page 111 of 547 (according to Kindle for iPhone), or 27 chapters in if you prefer a more translatable metric, and I’m convinced that this book should have been titled Moby Dick: or, a Whole Bunch of Dicks. Maybe Huge Dicks: or, Dicks, Dicks, Everywhere. My point is: this book is filled with dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick. (How many dicks is that? A lot.)

I mean, when Peleg is trying to explain Ahab to Ishmael, he says that Ahab has “fixed his fiery lance in mightier, stranger foes than whales. His lance! aye, the keenest and the surest that out of all our isle!” This is pretty much what I’m going to say the next time I need describe a lady killer, although I might leave out the “fiery lance” bit (or leave it in, if I feel that the target of this explanation may need to be discouraged from sampling said lance). [ED: Holy Crap. We love this analogy.  Oh, Ishmael; it remains unclear if the problem is that you’ve sampled the lance, or THAT YOU NEED TO.]

Fiery. Lance.

So let’s talk about the most obvious surrogate dick: the harpoon. Here we have a bunch of dudes on a boat together, potentially for years, whose worth is largely determined by how steady and accurate they are when hurling their detachable penis at giant fearsome sea creatures. Yes, I realize that this implies that Moby Dick is an avatar of the unfathomable terror of lady-parts, vagina dentata with the brain of an elder god – but I haven’t gotten that far, so let’s put that thought on hold for now. Right now they’re just a bunch of bros having a sausagefest.

Still not a whole lot of action to this point, although our proto- Ace and Gary have signed up and shipped out on the Pequod. They’ve met Starbuck, Flask, and Stubb, but Ahab hasn’t made an appearance. (I assume that Starbuck must be pretty interesting, since there have been so many characters in other books with the same name. Also shitty coffee.) Ishmael has also described the various brown sailors whose job it is to hand these three dudes fresh harpoons if they happen to have bent their wookiees. (Surrogate primitive cocks!)

But I do want to talk a little bit about something other than man meat. In the post-part 1 discussion, I noted that to that point, Queequeg had only spoken “on camera” once, and it was a bit jarring given Ishmael’s tendency to summarize his buddy’s words. We’ve now had two bits of Queequeg dialog, and both of them have occurred in scenes of mock-violence. First, the encounter on the ferry to Nantucket (chapter 13), in which Queequeg tosses his tormentor in the air and catches him, as if to make the point that he could have hurt the guy but chose not to, and second, during Queequeg’s job interview on the Pequod (chapter 18), in which he demonstrates his harpooning prowess (ahem). In both cases, violence is implied but no actual violence is committed, which contrasts with Queequeg’s savage appearance and speech patterns. I don’t know what that means! But I thought it was interesting.

Queequeg, 1930!

There is so much more to discuss, like how Queequeg is getting paid a much larger share than Ishmael, how Ahab looms without being seen, how there’s a weird dude named Elijah who is basically the mystical warning character from every horror movie, how Ishmael goes on a huge rant about how awesome whalers are, etc., etc., but mostly I’m wondering how I never knew that this book is a giant dick joke wrapped in smaller dick jokes. It’s actually pretty funny! I mean, I realize it doesn’t stay funny, but I feel like this book needs better advertising. I am also pretty sure this would make a great movie, with James Franco behind the camera and starring as Ishmael. If only we knew someone who could pitch this idea to him …. [ED: TERRIBLE IDEA, Jake, TERRIBLE. Channing Tatum, Maybe.]



Avidly: You don’t mention the chapter “The Advocate,” which I will now tell you is one that Moby-Dick nerds like to quote back and forth at each other.  Any thoughts or impressions?

Smart Dude: “The Advocate” totally did jump out at me! I made a reference to it in my last paragraph (“how Ishmael goes on a huge rant about how awesome whalers are”). I didn’t say much about it because I didn’t know what to say and it didn’t fit into my own brief narrative. I thought it was kind of funny, in that he’s super defensive about a job that, as of this part of the narrative, he’s barely a part of (I realize that this is very much a retrospective narrative, and this chapter certainly re-emphasizes that — there are a few other reminders in the next couple chapters, little “but that’s not what happened to Starbuck” sorts of lines). For me, reading through it for the first time, it feels like an amusing interlude rather than an important part of the story. Although it does, as I mentioned, re-emphasize that the Ishmael telling the story is the Ishmael who’s already experienced the whole thing. We’re not experiencing the events with him in real time. Also I thought this chapter had a surprising amount of numbers and sounded sort of like a semi-logical internet rant from his whaling blog.

Avidly: You mention Elijah, the wack-a-doo prophet guy who seems sort of horror movie ish and archetypal. Anyone else seem to be giving you any sort of “this is this type of story” kind of cues? Like, does this book seem like anything else to you?  What associations are you making?


Smart Dude: Peleg and Bildad are a little like central casting Odd Couple Quakers (um, if that’s a thing). And there’s certainly a lot of doom and gloom, some coming from those two (particularly Bildad), some from the sermon several chapters ago, and a lot from the narrative itself — including several so-ominous-they’re-sort-of-funny asides like “but of course that guy never came back from this trip”. There’s also a lot of talk about how Starbuck, Flask, and Stubb handle pressure and scary stuff. Honestly, more than anything else it sounds like cheesy horror movie foreboding. Ooooh, look, that guy’s name is Coffin! Spooky!

Avidly: Another other thing that Moby-Dick people go all ape shit about here is writing. Like, tattoos, Queequeg’s mark, etc.  Be honest. Does any of this leap out to A Smart Dude, on his first Moby-Dick read?


Smart Dude: Honestly, not one bit. Have there been tattoos already? If so I totally missed that. [Ed: DUDE JAKE QUEEQUEG DUUUUUUUDE.]

Avidly: One more. Ishmael: Still mansplaining?  What do you think of this dude?

Smart Dude:  “The Advocate” is totally mansplaining! He’s like the debate team nerd who gets a few beers into him and corners you at a party and is like, yeah, I know what you think, you think this, but you’re wrong because of that, even though you didn’t actually get to tell him what you think. All that said, I do think there’s a certain amount of decay in the narrative to this point, in that he started out confident and nonchalant, and the facade is starting to break down a little bit. The Advocate in particular seems like he’s trying way too hard. (ED: SHUDDUP DUDE, THOSE COMMAS ARE PERFECT.)

Tune in next time to learn the answer to the question on everyone’s mind: what does A Smart Dude think of AHAB??!



Jake Bartolone: Exactly that kind of person.

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