(1992), a novel by American author Robert Stone, follows middle-aged, well-to-do Vietnam veteran Owen Browne as he volunteers for the task of representing his company in a round-the-world yacht race. Based on the real-life story of British sailor Donald Crowhurst, the novel is the fifth novel by Stone, who is best known for 1974’s Dog Soldiers
. Outerbridge Reach
was a New York Times
bestseller and a nominee for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Kirkus Reviews
hailed it as “a novel of true American literary significance.”
Owen Browne is a handsome, upper-middle-class man in his forties. He drinks sparingly, keeps himself active both physically and intellectually, and works hard at his job as a copywriter for Altan Marine, a yacht-broker based in Connecticut. However, he is troubled. As he sets off for work one morning, he tries to remember—or imagine—how he imagined his future twenty years ago when he graduated from the Naval Academy: “The image would have been a romantic one, but romantic in the postwar modernist style. Its heroic quality would have been salted in stoicism and ennobled by alienation. As an uncritical reader of Hemingway, he would have imagined his future self suitably disillusioned and world-weary.”
His marriage to the beautiful but borderline-alcoholic Anne is weary and dysfunctional, while his teenage daughter Mags treats him with open contempt. He is haunted by his service in Vietnam: not by what he witnessed, but by what he didn’t witness, as he spent his tour assigned to paperwork duties. He has money troubles. He is unsettled in a way he can’t pin down, perhaps on the brink of a mid-life crisis.
Altan’s parent company, the Hylan Corporation, has a plan to drum up custom for its yachts: their playboy CEO, Matty Hylan is going to sail one of them in a round-the-world yacht race. When Hylan disappears, leaving a financial mess in his wake, Browne volunteers to take his place in the race.
Browne has no open-ocean sailing experience, but the grateful Corporation is willing to overlook this. Browne, in turn, does not ask whether the Corporation’s top-of-the-range boat is actually suitable for such a voyage. Anne, who writes for a sailing magazine, points out that Browne’s decision is foolhardy, but she recognizes that it may be what her husband needs to shake him from his doldrums and rescue their marriage, so she agrees to support him.
The novel’s title refers to a salvage yard owned by Anne’s father, who dislikes Browne. When Browne visits on an Altan boat, he finds it a depressing site, full of wrecked hulks; it is “marked on the charts as Outerbridge Reach.”
The Hylan Corporation has hired a documentary filmmaker, Ron Strickland, to make a film about their involvement in the race. As Strickland introduces himself to Browne and Anne, we learn that he is a man who prides himself on having no illusions. He sees himself as someone who penetrates falsehood to expose "the difference between what people say they're doing and what's really going on." His plan is to subject the Brownes’ apparently All-American marriage to this kind of exposure. We meet a casualty of one of Strickland’s previous projects, a drug-addicted prostitute named Pamela who has become Strickland’s lover.
As he prepares for the race, Browne realizes that his boat isn’t properly equipped. He also confronts the limitations of his ability as a sailor, repeatedly falling into the water. Nevertheless, he embarks with a sense of optimism, and alone on the water, he feels simultaneously joyful and haunted by “some old misery slinking away with an unremembered dream.”
Browne overcomes initial challenges, recovering from what had seemed to be tetanus, and managing to stay on course despite slapdash navigation. But soon conditions worsen: the wind rises, the rain lashes down, and the poor-quality boat starts falling apart, its “plastic unmaking itself.” He spots an iceberg, looking on the horizon like one of the steam tugs “his father-in-law owned at Outerbridge Reach.” Finally, he sees that he is “about to experience the true dimensions of the situation in which he had placed himself.”
Meanwhile, back home, Strickland has begun an affair with Anne, even introducing her to Pamela. However, Strickland’s sense of himself as impeccably unromantic is shaken as he finds himself falling in love with Anne, who for her part has little real interest in Strickland.
As he battles to survive, Browne begins to experience religious visions of “singularity.” Realizing that he cannot make further progress, but unwilling to face the humiliation of defeat, Browne starts reporting false positions to the race’s organizers. His false log becomes more poetic and deranged as he cuts off all contact with the outside world and drifts around the South Atlantic. Browne’s thoughts become delusional and tumultuous. After a final, ecstatically terrible vision, he commits suicide by feeding himself to the sharks in the water.