The world of the U.S.S. Nellie Crocker was a world of men, both brothers and antagonists. The nominal cargo aboard the ship was the goods of war being transported to battle, but Lonnie Coleman, a master of the taut narrative, shows us this vessel burdened also with the freight of human vanity.
This is the story of two men fighting for control of the ship in order to prove their authority. Captain Winters’ vanity is that he insists on being the martinet ruler of his ship in order to be shown a respect he knows he is unable to earn. Far subtler is Wesley Mason’s vanity: as first lieutenant, he runs the ship with a loving competence that celebrates the virtue of his accomplishment rather than the job he accomplishes. The captain and his first lieutenant’s contest for power is personal, bitter, and one-sided. The captain holds all the cards but one.
Captain Winters cannot run his ship without Mason, but with Mason daily demonstrating his ability, Winters feels his own egotistical stature diminished. The captain is incapable of learning; Mason isn’t.
He learns through his intimacy with the crew, particularly young Busby with a chip on his shoulder against the world and a pawn of the captain’s to use against Mason, that if Winters forfeited love in order to be respected, he, Mason, has forfeited respect in order to be loved by his men. Mason’s growing awareness of his mistake is the philosophical theme worked out under the exciting surface of fast naval action.
Lonnie Coleman has developed a fast and smooth narrative pace for his wonderfully tight novels of men more at war with themselves than with any declared enemy. But this pace is deceptively simple. In The Golden Vanity and the ship, the U.S.S. Nellie Crocker, he has devised a complex metaphor to express the vanities of wonderfully portrayed voyagers on a long sea journey to war and discovery.