A. J. Liebling is making me laugh out loud, a lot. His not-so-funny subject is wartime in Europe, specifically his brief life on a tanker that brought him from England to America in December 1941. His shipmates are a gaggle of Norwegians. He figures the chances of a German torpedo attack on them to be about 90 to one. What nobody’s expecting is the news they hear on December 7:
There is a difference of thirteen and a half hours between the time in Hawaii and Great Britain, and I was asleep before Grung, the radioman, picked up the first bulletin about the attack on Pearl Harbor. I heard the news when I went up on the bridge next morning. Bull, the third officer, pumped my hand and said, “We both allies now!” It felt more natural to be a belligerent on a belligerent ship than that anomalous creature, a neutral among belligerent friends.
Liebling’s observations of day-to-day human behavior during wartime are touching, even heartening. He’s drawn to the most life-goes-on strains of men’s responses to existential threat. A pilot on his ship who lost seven motorboats at Dunkirk remembers the port best for the motorbike races the soldiers there ran and bet on. The exigencies and uncertainties of war make people only more vividly themselves.
And what selves the Norwegian shipmen are. There’s the steward who’s keeping clear of schoolteachers:
The fellow, who was wearing a white jacket, was obviously a steward. He was of medium size but had long arms, so the jacket sleeves ended midway between elbow and wrist, baring the tattooing on his wide forearms. On the right arm he had a sailor and his lass above the legend, in English, “True Love.” The design on the left arm was a full-rigged ship with the inscription “Hilse fra Yokohama,” which means “Greetings from Yokohama.” His head was large and bald except for two tufts of red hair at the temples, looking like a circus clown’s wig. He had a bulging forehead and a flat face with small eyes, a turned-up nose, and a wide mouth. As soon as I got my breath, I said, “Passenger,” and he took me in charge with a professional steward’s manner, which, I afterward learned, he had acquired while working for a fleet of bauxite freighters that often carried tourists. The bauxite freighters had operated out of a port the steward called Noolians, and most of the tourists had been vacationing schoolteachers from the Middle West. Fearing emotional involvement with a schoolteacher, he had switched to tankers. “Tankers is safe,” he said. “No schoolteachers.” His name was Harry Larsen.
And the captain of few words:
At meals with Captain Petersen I had plenty of time for eating, because there was not much conversation. Once he said, as he began on his first plate of cabbage soup, “I have an uncle in New York who has been fifty-two years with the Methodist Book Concern.” Twenty minutes later, having finished his second helping of farina pudding, he said, “He came over in a windyammer.” On another occasion he said, “We had a Chinaman on the ship once. When we came to Shanghai he couldn’t talk to the other Chinamen.” After an interlude during which he ate three plates of lobscouse, a stew made of leftover meats and vegetables, he explained, “He came from another part of China.” And once, taking a long look at the shipowner’s portrait, he said, “I went to see an art gallery near Bordeaux.” After eating a large quantity of dried codfish cooked with raisins, cabbage, and onions, he added, “Some of the frames were that wide,” indicating with his hands how impressively wide they were. Once, in an effort to make him talk, I asked him, “How would you say, ‘Please pass me the butter, Mr. Petersen,’ in Norwegian?” He said, “We don’t use ‘please’ or ‘mister.’ It sounds too polite. And you never have to say ‘pass me’ something in a Norwegian house, because the people force food on you, so if you said ‘pass’ they would think they forgot something and their feelings would be hurt. The word for butter is smor.”
“Westbound Tanker” is collected in Just Enough Liebling. I’m happy to be only halfway through it. I got onto Liebling after reading James Marcus’s interview with Pete Hamill, who edited the new Library of America edition of Liebling. (If you’re reading The House of Mirth, as you should, you’ll be way ahead of me on this.)