Kurt Brindley himself has served in the U.S. navy and, armed with insider knowledge this experience has bought him, he's able to impart to us details about that life that may never have occurred to us. Who knew, for example, that rolling balls of lint otherwise known as ‘ghost turds’ might shape the course of a war, and in turn have the potential to shape world history? This is just a small (and funny) example of unexpected detail in a novel dealing with the underside of a navy at once absurd and often terrifying.
The main character, known here as Boot Camp, might be seen as a stand-in for an ordinary guy like you or me (so if you’re expecting high-blown action sequences with an indestructible hero, you should probably type 'Jack Reacher' into your search box). He's anxious on his first day of duty, not knowing entirely what’s going on, which reflects, not only how you or I might feel in a similar situation, but how most of us feel on the first day of any job. You expect a warm welcome, a nice induction, perhaps a spot of health and safety advice; what you don’t expect is to be left standing there for hours only to finally become engaged in a ridiculous, juvenile and ultimately dangerous game of hide and seek. From there, things soon get worse for Boot Camp, particularly during his first night, in which he becomes the victim of a brutal hazing – a violent and nauseating act with an undercurrent of homophobia, a theme which ripples and swells throughout the rest of the book.
The thematic underpinning of homophobia finds focus through the relationship between Boot Camp and Flavour – another sailor who’d found himself victimised by anti-gay sentiments, which seems to bind the rest of the crew together. After Flavour is discharged, leaving Boot Camp to deal with a frightening situation on his own – that of being hated by the rest of the crew who seek retribution for a mistaken slight – the novel draws us in further, inviting us to imagine ourselves away from home, outcast from the mainstream, and how we might cope with a threat of violence simmering beneath the surface of everyday working life. Indeed, that blend of mundane working life and the threat to Boot Camp’s life, spiral towards a courageous climax, involving a striking and unnerving image that stayed with me for days after finishing the book.
My only criticism of the novel is a couple of scenes involving Boot Camp’s superiors, who are deciding how to deal with the situation Boot Camp has found himself in. Although Kafkaesque, often amusing and another way for Brindley to illuminate the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell era, these scenes at times feel a little stilted, while also keeping us away from the main action involving our (anti)hero.
That said, what I loved about the book was Brindley’s straightforward, unobtrusive writing style, which was never dull or without depth; and Sea Trials is a great example of how good an Indie novel can be. Thought-provoking, funny, and frequently terrifying, it is as much about the average Joe and the first few weeks on the job, as well as the grander themes of sexual identity, fear and what it takes for one man to survive.
The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor is available from Amazon and Smashwords.