by Charles Neider,
Cooper Square Press, 2001
“Who would have imagined the events that would soon occur on it? Certainly not I” – Hank Elkins, D.C. bureaucrat with the resonant baritone.
A DC bureaucrat on an Antarctic mission as an international observer befriends a nature-photographer on the Coast Guard icebreaker Penguin that has set out from McMurdo Station bound for the Peninsula. But the captain of the boat doesn’t like the nature-photographer, and makes him bunk with the crewmen instead of assigning him the usual guest quarters, and won’t let him on the bridge to take pictures of the ocean.
The voyage occurs over a few weeks, just long enough for this remote place to drive the bureaucrat to the brink of epiphanal deprivation. His thoughts return, time and again, to the distant trees and green grass of New Zealand–which he hasn’t seen in a couple of weeks–and to the women whom he hasn’t seen in a couple of weeks either.
He calls his wife, and as the stark remoteness of the Southern Ocean fades into the background, their ailing relationship moves forward. But it hasn’t always been so. There were good times in Morocco where they admired ancient mosaics together, but also where someone grabbed her ass in the marketplace, but then they had a layover in Casablanca, and they met a fruit peddler, and his wife–Leelee, that’s her name– had “a wonderful, flexible bladder and could hold a pee for ages.” Then there was the incident in the British Museum, and the Latin Quarter in Paris, and that one time in Barcelona. Those were good times.
But our nostalgia is shaken because that blasted captain keeps causing trouble for the good-natured nature-photographer who has finally threatened to use his Senate connections in D.C. if the captain doesn’t shape up.
That straightens him out all right, and the captain invites the nature-photographer up to the bridge, and even to a special dinner with all the guests. As they’re feeding, the narrator bureaucrat describes at length the captain’s jewelled ring, because the bureacrat knows a lot about jewels, and wonders to himself whether the captain is really suited to a military life.
“Wouldn’t he have been happier as a vice president for public affairs in some large industrial company, say one specializing in making exotic fragrances?”
Whereby he contemplates the molecular traits of aroma, and tips his hat to the orchid, and to Bulgarian rose oil that is very expensive and stored behind a chain link fence, which brings the narrator to the many perplexing legal questions that Antarctic territory offers the curious mind, before the story resumes and the bureaucrat reminisces about his wife’s ass, and is fascinated by one of the crew’s fat asses, and maybe there are other asses, but by now I am skipping swiftly through the book looking for any trace of mercy.
But “The Grotto Berg” is ruthless, and when the ship passes too close to a berg, an enormous ice chunk cleaves off and smashes the nature photographer’s head against the deck of the ship. Then one of the crewmembers develops stigmata, and with his bleeding hands he pushes the captain overboard in the night.
This Antarctic tale of perfume, jewels, judgment, and asses brings to mind Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” which features UFOs and zombies, but is also a detective story with the occasional vampire. In one scene a vampire attacks some people barbecueing in the yard. One of the men repeatedly shoots it but it won’t die. Just as the undead creature is about to kill, it explodes in a flash and its caped skeleton lies there in the yard. The characters in the film are shocked by the vampire’s attack. The viewers watching the film are wondering why there are vampires in a UFO movie. Both parties are wondering why the vampire has suddenly exploded, as it did not seem clear from preceding events. The character who had been shooting at the vampire still has his gun poised, and after a lengthy silence–during which the characters and the viewers share a harmonic resonance of perfect confusion–he motions his head to the smoldering vampire that has just exploded at the backyard barbecue and says, “Whaddya make of that?”