The Believer Book Award

Is Hereby Presented to McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh

Ottessa Moshfegh’s McGlue is something between a sharply rendered tale of a journey across the high seas and an intimate glimpse into the psychic chaos of the eponymous sailor’s corrupted mind. The literal head wound may presage a gruesome death for McGlue, but for us it performs a dark and seductive spell—what’s beneath it seems to have the power to destroy as it creates.

The novel exists in the tension of the scar that holds our narrator’s skull together, its lips in constant danger of opening and spitting havoc. As McGlue worries at its edges—slamming his head against a cot in search of blackness’s relief, touching the crack with his fingers, trying to fill it with anything in the world but what’s already in there—the story spills out. The bound and shackled McGlue has left Johnson, his best (and only) friend, dead in his wake: what happened?

Despite the blood, the world is splendid: pies filled with sugarplums, rats, and brandy; whorehouses and well-stocked dry-goods stores; a lawyer in a gold-button vest; lime juice and ice; “rattans, split or unsplit.” The book is eminently readable—fun, and, through the heartache and the gut ache, often even funny as the unreal slips through the cracks of the ship’s hold and phantasms materialize in puffs of pipe smoke.

Moshfegh’s words are knives, and as they cut they also sculpt this thin, powerful book. Be grateful for their diamond-honed edge—in that pain is magic.

AN EXCERPT FROM MCGLUE

I’ve not seen Johnson in too long. He comes and goes in my mind’s eye and still he hasn’t come to my lock-up down here in the boat to cool my nerves, my hot snake brains they feel like, slithering and stewing around, steam seeping through the crack in my head. I’d ask him, Johnson, to find a doctor to take my charge, since I don’t know how else to get out of here.

I know I’m sick. I’ve been this sick before and Johnson got me better. A slow feed of whiskey, corn pone and fish pie, quick walks through the trees each noon at first and then learning day by day on a boat how to rig sails and all the knots and lugging crates and learning how to bark above the wind, sit and ride the quiet oceans. Had I liquor to spill I’d pour it directly into the crack, to cool the snakes. Get them to settle down, quit hissing. If I drink enough down my throat they lie still for a while and I can ride out a moment of my life, like I’ve been doing here and there. But it gets harder the longer I’m down here, the lesser Fag comes in with bottles. The ale is flat and weak. A blackie sneaks me snuff but it keeps me awake and once I spit it in the bucket I’m thirsty again. Saunders answers a question I haven’t asked. “We’d got him wrapped in burlap and tied up, and he was all stiff and done bleeding, and once we were a few clicks off shore from Zanzibar we just pushed him off. But we didn’t have a song or no one to make a real tribute besides Captain who said what a good man he’d been.” He doesn’t look my way. “So we said a prayer in our heads and dropped in a bible after him and he sunk but the bible didn’t,” he says. “Don’t think we haven’t got a heart.”

“When’s Johnson coming?” I ask Saunders.

He pulls the door shut again. I wait. In some time the boat stills on the water and I hear the dull and grainy sound of shore. I imagine what it looks like: Purple hills in the distance. Girls in thick red-and-white dresses, donkeys wearing carpets, bodegas full of gut-stabbing liquor. Cold wet deck I’d skip down and the gritty black dirt I’d clear bits of trash away from before I’d kiss. Lick my lips. The warm and bitter taste of solid ground. On my knees. I spit in the bucket. I call for Fag. A plate of potatoes sits on the dropped-down. I decide to stand. My feet look carbuncled and large swinging from my child-sized ankles, two soft, buoy-like calves swaying inside lengths of soiled woolen underwear. I catch my reflection in the shield-shaped mirror. It’s a drawing of a hungry, long-bearded squirrel.

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