This is a reading of the classic American novel Moby-Dick, as interpreted by Jack Pendarvis. To embark at the beginning, please click here.
So in this Burger King commercial there’s a white man… wearing a crown and eating a hamburger, and it pans down… to show that he’s sitting on the shoulders of a black man? It made me think of Flask, when Flask climbs up on Daggoo in the whaling boat. I don’t remember what chapter that is. And all of the racist—even though Melville, uh… strives to… make Flask the ridiculous figure in that combination, and Daggoo the helpful and dignified figure, it’s still a… strange and racist image, and even though I’m sure the… Burger King… marketing department… and… with their… uh, hunngh, really unfathomable insistence on… I—what I suppose they think is edgy weirdness—that immobile death mask they use as their Burger King mascot. And I imagine the original Burger King actor—I just thought of this—is… long dead, perhaps. [Short laugh.] I’m not… I don’t know that for a fact!
But imagine his family having to look at his virtual death mask… that… livi… that… “living.” Living’s the wrong word. That plastic example of rigor mortis, that for some reason Burger King thinks is a cool… maybe I’m doing [stifled laugh] just what they want me to do. Oh, you win again, Burger King. You know what… would be better… than what I’m doing right now? I… could be reading Moby-Dick.
[Recorder goes off.]
I took week off. Or more! More than a week. It would be more appropriate to say that Moby-Dick took a week off from me. I wasn’t tired of Moby-Dick. I was tired of my relationship… with Moby-Dick… and… I would say to Moby-Dick, if… if it were, if it were a romantic relationship, I would say, “It’s not… you, it’s me.”
I took that week or more to revise my own novel.
A cruel waste of time.
I started reading Chapter Fifty-Four of Moby-Dick, and if I were inclined to do any research, which I am not, I’m sure I could account for its strange… structure.
Ishmael says, “Oh, these guys came onboard from another ship, and well, nobody knew this part of the story until… much, much later, after, in fact—after the novel’s over. I shouldn’t even put it in the novel, but I’m gonna stick it in here, in its proper chronological spot, even though I didn’t know about it, nobody knew about it, Captain Ahab never knew about it…”
“How it happened was, these guys… told Tashtego about it, and they said, ‘Now, you better promise not to tell anybody!’ And Tashtego was like, ‘I promise.’”
“And… they said, ‘Okay, then!’ And… ‘Okay, we’ll tell you, since you promised.’”
And… then Tashtego kept his promise but he talked in his sleep a lot, which is a funny… detail. Seems like they should have vetted Tashtego more thoroughly. [Laughter.] I don’t know, wuh, why the story’s such a big secret. Not only that, but Ishmael says, uhhhh, “I’m gonna…” Oh, yes. So Tashtego mumbled [laughter] various details in his sleep. And people pieced this story together on the ship. With varying degrees of… accuracy. Anyway, there’s old Tashtego, lyin’ in his… hammock: “Blah blah blah, whale. Blah blah, boat, hole, swordfish. Whisper, whisper. Blurt, blurt.”
And… so that’s the chapter? No! That’s not the chapter! Because Ishmael goes—and I haven’t finished reading the chapter, but he says, “Not only that, but I’m gonna… neh, uhhhhh, tell it to you… I’m gonna…”
He really basically says he’s gonna do what I’m doing here. “I’m going to transcribe it after I talk it… I’m gonna… this is… I’m gonna tell it to you just exactly the way—it’s a faithful transcription of my babbling as I sat in a bar some years after all the events related in this novel.” [Lip smack.] “And retold this story that three anonymous guys told Tashtego, which Tashtego then, uh, mmmuh, rueerhhhrrr, partially… babbled in his… sleep. Uh, and then I told it to these guys in a bar, and I’m gonna tell you the version that I told. To some guys in a bar. Several years after…”
You see… rrrrrrrrrr… you see?
This is where we are. And I—I’ll get back to Chapter Fifty-four after I’ve finished it. I did want to mention that, ah, you may not recall that Megan Abbott and I are in a small book club, in which she and I read celebrity autobiographies, and… related ephemera. In this case we’ve picked up, uh, the novel, the lightly fictionalized account that Ray Bradbury wrote… of trying to write the screenplay… for the film version of Moby-Dick… for John Huston. So that may come up in my… much like Ishmael, I’m gonna add an unnecessary… layer or two of obfuscation onto an already… complex… mud pie.
That…! Is… why I’m not… good.
[Extremely, extremely long pause. A burst of laughter.]
I’m sorry. I meant that phrase is not good. What did I say? Obfuscation of a mud pie? That’s not… you know, don’t… don’t give me any medals.
[New recording begins.]
And so Ishmael tells the tale. “Hey, fellas, you’re not gonna believe this, uh, story I heard from some guys that were—nah, nah, yuh, it was like fourth-hand, but it’s still a good story. There was this guy—okay, there was this ship. A guy named [stifled laugh] Steelkilt, so… you know. Think about that for a m—second. And he was handsome and tall and his nose was… within the… boundaries of current standards for aesthetic… uhh…”
[Loud stomach growling.]
“It—it was great. I can’t…”
“It was just—he had a magnificent nose. Tall, strong, a golden boy, this Steelkilt. And then the first mate, who was his superior in title, was Rad. His name was Rad. Was he ‘rad’ in the adjectival sense, such as might be bandied about by Christian Slater in the film Gleaming the Cube? He was not. He was a little punk! He was a mule-faced dope. An angry rat. A little… turd, compared to Steelkilt, or so Steelkilt… might imagine. And you know how it is when you think you’re hot shit and your boss is a rat-faced turd.”
Follow us, please, into the next thrilling installment.
Jack Pendarvis is a writer who lives in Oxford, Mississippi. In this weekly transcription, we join him as he reads Moby-Dick.
Please follow the original text of Moby-Dick here, if you like (highly recommended).