Silver City Novelist Spins Naval Tales
Silver City, far from the sea’s salty foam, now claims Philip “Pep” Parotti as our answer to C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian, masters of sea faring tales.
Those of us of a certain age remember awaiting the arrival of the Saturday Evening Post, usually not in the Saturday mail. We anticipated the latest story or serial installment about Forester’s swashbuckling Captain Hornblower.
Parotti, a graduate of the Annapolis Naval Academy and a retired English professor now writing his sixth novel for Casemate Publishers’ “war/combat fiction,” has devised a personal style, which omits much of the “swash” but adds fascination to the “buckling,” transforming day-to-day grind into captivating stories.
Consider Parotti’s latest, In the Shadows of Guadalcanal. Rather than plunge readers into the maelstrom of Allied struggles to regain control of the Pacific from Japan, the narrative introduces Tony Colombo, survivor of German torpedoes that sank his merchant ship. He reactivates his Naval Reserve status and is soon a lieutenant aboard a rusty World War I destroyer. It, too, is sunk, leaving Colombo with a set of broken ribs.
Thanks to his education and good record, Colombo earns captaincy of PC-450 . The previous captain had been nabbed with his hand in the Naval till, converting ship supplies into private loot. Some people classified PC-450 as a “subchaser,” but the crew of fewer than 20 affectionately called it the Tub. It mostly maneuvered hide-and-seek with enemy submarines rather than actually chasing them.
Like Tolstoy in War and Peace, Parotti has a philosophy of history. It is best summed up in the sentence that pronounces the Tub’s fate for the rest of the book: “So, in looking around for a replacement that could fill in for the lonesome DD [a crippled escort destroyer], some bright soul at Fleet Headquarters had lighted on the Tub.” It’s a mysterious roll of unknown dice. Colombo, his boat and his crew were destined for Australia and the Pacific islands.
In Shadows of Guadalcanal, as in Melville’s novels and Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, but seldom in Forester’s yarns, readers taste the tedium of an infinite ocean. Parotti, with his references to white horse waves and category 4 seas, makes even the most hardened sailor pale and seek a slop bucket as the deck pitches and heaves. The Filipino cook, capable of some carefully described gourmet meals, usually must resort to Spam; a 24-hour cruise buffet was an attraction far in the future.
The authentic, crawling passage of time–something a movie can scarcely duplicate–distinguishes Parotti’s account. He doesn’t surrender to the temptation to relate what’s happening in the U.S. or what’s happening at the front; instead, the book’s world squeezes into a steel can about 200 feet long and 30 feet wide.
A reader begins to relate to the sailors through snatches of information. The talk is naval but free of most acronyms littering military jargon. I cringed at only one place in the book where Parotti tried to duplicate the cook’s dialect; if a writer isn’t Mark Twain, that writer shouldn’t imitate dialect.
Marsha Clifton, a Bruce Department Store employee in Brisbane, Australia, meets Captain Colombo, an Italian American from the Midwest. She’s a redhead. She’s beautiful. Colombo is smitten from the start, and the romance, rather delicately detailed, rushes forward. As the Tub escorts stinky cattle boats and coal carriers toward the Allied staging island for an attack north against Guadalcanal, Colombo has a new lover’s anxiety.
Meanwhile Japanese submarines, both miniature and full-sized, as well as flotillas of airplanes, threaten the Tub. Each attack follows its own pattern. Parotti manages the geography with the aplomb of Rand McNally and while I couldn’t tell you the whereabouts of Nouméa and Tulagi, just a few pages convey the knowledge of the author, always doling out convincing details.
Reflecting on this conflict, often fought at the dull edges of supply lines and behind the theater that captures headlines, Colombo thinks: “…being decorated for sinking or participating in the sinking of two submarines and causing the death of he didn’t know how many men forced him to think for a moment on the ugly side of war and the way that it forced men to act in contravention of everything that they’d been taught or grown up believing.” It’s a rare moment out of war.
Other Parotti War Novels
Parotti takes advantage of having a different hero for each of his novels. That means that the characters fighting a 1916 air war for England in North Africa, as depicted in Cast of Falcons, don’t have to reappear in 110-foot wooden submarine chasers, protecting Atlantic sea-lanes against U-boats in Splinter on the Tide. Riders upon the Storm features World War I subchasers, but in the English Channel, which required sweeping for German mines at war’s end. Through Bitter Seas portrays a Naval Reserve tug in the invasion at Anzio, on the opposite side of the globe from Guadalcanal.
Parotti has brought such skill and intelligence to his capacity to tell every story well that I believe a Silver City reader who can’t tell an oar from an abalone will insist on reading the whole Parotti set after a mere taste of a single tale.