The Great Eastern

The Great Eastern

by Howard Rodman


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A dazzling, inventive literary adventure story in which Captain Ahab confronts Captain Nemo and the dark cultural stories represented by both characters are revealed in cliffhanger fashion.

A sprawling adventure pitting two of literature's most iconic anti-heroes against each other: Captain Nemo and Captain Ahab. Caught between them: real-life British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, builder of the century's greatest ship, The Great Eastern. But when he's kidnapped by Nemo to help design a submarine with which to fight the laying of the Translatlantic cable - linking the two colonialist forces Nemo hates, England and the US - Brunel finds himself going up against his own ship, and the strange man hired to protect it, Captain Ahab, in a battle for the soul of the 19th century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612197852
Publisher: Melville House Publishing
Publication date: 06/04/2019
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 811,725
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Howard A. Rodman is Past President of the Writers Guild of America West; a professor of screenwriting at USC's School of Cinematic Arts; and an artistic director of the Sundance Screenwriting Labs. Among his screenwriting credits, he wrote SAVAGE GRACE, starring Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne, and AUGUST, featuring Josh Hartnett, Naomie Harris, Rip Torn, and David Bowie. He also wrote JOE GOULD'S SECRET, the opening night film of the Sundance Film Festival. Rodman's previous novel, DESTINY EXPRESS, was set in the pre-War German filmmaking community: Thomas Pynchon called it "daringly imagined, darkly romantic—a moral thriller."

Read an Excerpt

On 20th September 1859—fifteen days after he suffered a grievous stroke on the foredeck of the Great Eastern, a steamship larger by sixfold than any ever built, that he had designed and constructed; thirteen days after that ship’s launch from London’s Isle of Dogs, embarked on a steam-driven crossing of an ocean; eleven days after a massive boiler explosion shot through his Great Eastern, killing eight stokers, catapulting the ship’s nine-ton funnel into the air and dispatching her, now crippled, back to harbor; five days after his death was announced to the world—the casket of Isambard Kingdom Brunel was lowered by winch into the family plot in Kensal Green. There it would rest, parallel to that of his father, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, who had some ten years previous likewise passed away of stroke. The tackle-blocks of the lowering winch were built on a machine designed by the elder Brunel, as were such blocks everywhere. This was a family that knew how to make things, and how to make things work. Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s funeral was attended by his friends; his family; his collaborator John Scott Russell FRS, a legion of dockworkers, and an army of trainmen—perhaps a thousand all told—assembled to pay tribute to the man who, in addition to the Great Eastern, had previously constructed the Thames Tunnel, the Great Western Railway, the Hungerford Bridge, the pneumatic “atmospheric railway” from Exeter to Newton, and Paddington station, too.

The funeral oration was delivered by Sir Daniel Gooch, superintendent of locomotive engines for the Great Western Railway, who said in summation that “great things are not done by those who sit down and count the cost of every thought and act.” It was intended as tribute to Brunel, who had been, at his death, trembling on the very lip of accomplishing one of his grander dreams; and perhaps as a knowing rebuke to Scott Russell, Brunel’s co-builder and financier, who had for seven years quarreled fiercely with Brunel over that dream’s expense. All funerals are sad, and to say one funeral is sadder than another is folly, as grief cannot be quantified. But this particular funeral had aspects that were uniquely dolourous. Brunel’s stroke had cast a long pall on the launch two days subsequent. And now, on the 20th September, no one here on Kensal Green assembled could augur when Brunel’s grand dream, the Great Eastern, would make her crossing. When, or even whether.

Sir Daniel’s oration emphasized Brunel’s earlier accomplishments—the Railway, the Station, the Bridge—to the neglect of his more recent, arduous, calamitous venture. And so the army of train-men in attendance, who owed their livelihood in large part to Brunel, were pleased by the oration; as was Scott Russell, who had been bankrupted by the Great Eastern project, and was relieved that its failure, and his own, were not, that day, thrown in his face. What Brunel and Scott Russell had in 1851 envisaged as the work of one year became the work of eight. Those eight years had broken Scott Russell and, it was now being said, had killed Brunel. There had been no words from his frozen throat, no flicker of expression on his frozen face, still as arctic ice, when Brunel received the news of the explosion that had sent his creation back to its berth. But among the mourners in Kensal Green, it was assumed without serious dispute that had the news had broken his spirit. That his mind had willed his heart to cease. A decision from the bridge, transmitted by engine order telegraph, to pass from Dead Slow Ahead, to Stop.

An autumnal cumulus scudded across the sky. The oration ended, the casket was lowered, the graveside mound of dirt shoveled back in place. The crowd began to disperse. And if Brunel’s death had, for a moment, brought them together as one, the distinctions of class, caste, occupation now separated the streams of departure. The family—Brunel’s widow, Mary Elizabeth, in black bombazine; his two sons, Marc Henry and Isambard Junior; his daughter, Flor-ence Mary; his sister Sophia and her husband, Benjamin Hawes—left the Green in Mary Elizabeth’s carriage (the one lined in cream silk, which she deemed more suited to the occasion than the one bound in green). The financiers and Royal Society Fellows climbed into their cabriolets, while the foot attendants—pallbearers, feathermen, pages, and mutes—repaired to the nearest tavern to drink gin, and to smoke cheroots in the manner of the departed.

A small river of carpenters, dockworkers, and trainmen departed by foot, through the Kensal Green gates, across Harrow Road, then south on Ladbroke Grove. Among them, unnoticed and unremarked upon, was a black-bearded man—a lascar, which is to say, a seaman or dockworker from the subcontinent. He wore the uniform of his profession: horizontally striped jersey under double-breasted coat of wool Melton. He did not call attention to himself nor did anyone call attention to him. Had they known certain facts they most certainly would have. To wit: the lascar had been present on 5th September when Brunel was stricken, and then had borne him to Mile End; had, on 7th September, attended the Great Eastern’s launch, and can be seen, in the photographs, holding Brunel upright; had, on 9th September, clamped shut the Great Eastern’s feedwater valves, causing the ship’s boiler, one hour later, violently to explode; had, on 15th September, stood by Dr. Murdstone’s side when the death was announced; and was now, on 20th September, near-invisible in the larger throng at the burial, his activities of the past fortnight lost to history.

The railmen and dockworkers walked down Ladbroke Grove, past Dissenters’ Chapel, across the malodorous canal. The grand stream of mourners became a series of rivulets, then of rills. Soon the lascar could not be seen at all.

Young Shropham, a freethinker of peripatetic family, thirteen years of age, liked his job, or, to be more accurate, liked the liberty his job afforded. It paid enough to keep him in his apartments in Bow, and to eat sufficiently to keep his brain alive. He worked from sunset until dawn, and became, perforce, a day sleeper. It suited him. As the night clerk at Mile End Infirmary, he found he was not much bothered. The admissions were largely during the daylight hours when he was gone. The urgent night-timers, souls stricken under moon and stars, generally went to the Royal London, where the care was swifter and of better quality. Mile End catered to the residents of the adjacent workhouse, and to the sick poor among merchant seamen and dockworkers. You’d come here at night only if stabbed or shot in the proximate neighborhood. In broadest strokes, people did not come to Mile End to be cured. They came here to die.

Nor was Shropham’s work difficult. Should there be an arrival, Shropham’s job was to fetch—and, if need be, awaken—the physician. Shropham himself had no medical training, nor did he seek it. The frailties and mysteries of the body were of little concern to him. His delight was his music, which he composed in his head and then transcribed to ruled paper at his desk just inside the Mile End doors. On a good night he could work for hours without interruption. There’d be, of course, screams and wails and rantings and rales from down the corridor. But he tried not to hear them, or, if he heard, to weave them into his work.

On the night of 5th September he was composing a mournful Largo, the third movement of Shropham’s Sonata Number Four, when he heard, from outside, the strike of hooves on cobbled stone, the scrapeof wooden wheels—Followed soon by both doors swinging inward, as three lascars carried a makeshift litter fashioned of sailcloth. On the litter was a man in long coat and vest, about fifty years of age, with a leather cheroot case strapped to his chest. The man was not moving.

“Might you summon a physician?” The first lascar spoke politely, with a melodious, subcontinental lilt. But if his diction was proper, the urgency beneath was unconcealed.

“At once,” said Shropham, and rang the surgery bell. He was apprehensive, no, terrified. Men of this class did not come to Mile End. The lungers, the mendicants, the ticket-of-leave apostles, yes—but not the kind of gentleman who now occupied the entry hall, borne aloft by lascars as if entering some distant royal city by palanquin. No good, Shropham knew, could come of this. If the gentleman died in Mile End’s care there would be hell to pay.

Shropham ran down the corridor to the surgery of Dr. Murdstone, entered without preface, and there found the good doctor asleep, or, more precisely, near-comatose in his chair. He’d been imbibing. Shropham shook him, jostled him, called his name repeatedly. When Murdstone awoke he was more in that world than in this one. But he understood, immediately, the import of the situation: a man of high station, in grave condition, had come to Mile End to be resuscitated.

Where Shropham saw doom, Murdstone saw possibility: perhaps, with some luck, he could save the day. As a man of erudition, now fallen on hard times, exiled to the night shift of a wretched and sorrow ful establishment on the wrong side of town, he was, when not numbing the awareness of his present station with gin, always mindful of the main chance. He awoke swiftly and completely. Perhaps he was not destined to spend the rest of his days with stethoscope and flask among the tubercular flotsam of Mile End. He smoothed his jacket, cleared his throat, pushed back his mouse-brown hair, rose to the occasion.

The visitor was brought to Murdstone’s surgery. His name, they were told, was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, civil engineer, Fellow of the Royal Society. It was a name both Murdstone and Shropham knew from the popular press. Indeed, by all indicia Brunel was perfectly situated to fulfill Murdstone’s dreams (or, perhaps, Shropham’s fears). Murdstone took the man’s pulse, listened to his breath, palpated hisiver, shone focused gaslight on each pupil. It was, Murdstone essayed, a stroke.

“Does he smoke many of those?” said Murdstone, gesturing toward the leather box of cheroots.

“Some forty a day, sir, perhaps more when he is working or agitated.” The first lascar’s diction exhibited crisp consonants, long vowels, as if he were a Cantabrigian.

“And what were the circumstances under which he was stricken?”

“We had been summoned to the Great Eastern, sir, a steamship in Millward Slip, to pick up a set of drawings,” said the lascar. “When we arrived, Mr. Brunel began to give us instructions, then lost, mid-sentence, the power of speech. The side of his face froze in rictus. He was then as you see him now. So we brought him here, that his life might be saved.”

The doctor thought for a moment and said, “He is in good hands. You may leave him now.”

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