A feckless moron is appointed to the captaincy of a ship, despite having no nautical experience. The Captain has a propensity to grope women and brag about not paying his taxes, and in his younger days he ‘had hidden in the bowels of the ship looking at pornographic magazines’ while his peers went to war. Once in post he fires the entire navigational staff and has the ship’s manuals jettisoned. A mysterious voice in a vent urges him to take ever more drastic measures against the ship’s population, whereupon a number of ‘swarthy’ passengers are thrown overboard to drown. Utilities and basic freedoms are privatised as the Glory descends into despotism. The Captain becomes a patsy of the ship’s most fearsome foreign enemies, with disastrous consequences.
Readers will soon discern parallels between Dave Eggers’s new novella and the recent political turmoil in the United States. A somewhat heavy-handed satirical work, The Captain and the Glory is narrated in the manner of a children’s story, complete with grisly embellishments. We are told that the Pale One (an avatar for Vladimir Putin) would not only murder innocent civilians but ‘occasionally eat them too, adding a special sauce, spicy but not too spicy, that he’d created himself’. This cutesy register is combined with bawdy riffs on the Captain’s sexual insecurities. He communicates with his supporters by posting misspelt missives on a whiteboard. In one of these he declares: ‘ALSO ABOUT MY P-NUS: MUCH BETTER THAN PREVIOUS CAPTAIN’S.’
Satire can seem a bit redundant when the real thing is more egregious than any pastiche. For what it’s worth, Eggers’s caricature is sharply observed. Having consolidated his power, we find the Captain — who has a childlike attention span — thoroughly bored at the helm of the ship, looking out to sea: ‘Where were the whales? He saw no whales.’ The unmistakably Trumpian turn of phrase is very on-point. One particularly striking passage deftly captures the peculiar blend of simplemindedness and cruelty that makes a bully: having instructed his men to use water cannon on approaching migrant boats, the Captain regards a group whose ‘tin boat capsized — it almost spun, which the Captain thought beautiful, in a way, the way the silver took the light — flinging the humans left and right’.This neatly crafted parable is a patriotic cri de cœur on behalf of liberal America at a time when its values are widely believed to be under threat. As with so much Trump-related commentary from the East Coast, it has certain built-in blind spots: the narrative arc of the allegory is premised on a simplistically rosy view of America’s role in world affairs prior to the calamity of the 2016 election. Moreover, the cartoonish portrayal of the Captain’s hardcore followers recalls some of the more misanthropic rhetoric of the Clinton campaign, unhelpfully perpetuating the canard that it was mainly the poor who voted Trump into office.Three years have passed, but few lessons have been learnt.