Book Review: Cork Boat

One of my coworkers was so taken with Cork Boat: A True Story of the Unlikeliest Boat Ever Built that he shoved his copy into my hands and demanded that I read it. He came to regret that decision.

The book is a memoir from John Pollack, a man whose talent as a writer is without question. I just wish such ability resided in a decent human being.

Pollack starts his tale in the conventional way by talking about his childhood, but his early years were anything but conventional. The scion of a Liberal political activist mother and father who was a professor of geophysics, the family was constantly traveling the world to poke and prod into the remote corners of the Earth. The author attributes this upbringing as having instilled in him an unquenchable desire to strive for achievements less ordinary. This manifested itself in a childish plan to build a boat from used wine corks, which is certainly nothing less than less ordinary. As far as writing a memoir is concerned, so far so good.

He also relates the sad tale of losing Sara, his sister and constant companion. His father took the family to the Himalayas on a research project when Pollack was 12. His sister was swept away in a mountain stream, along with one of the native guides who selflessly plunged into the torrent in a rescue attempt. Neither were ever seen again.

It was at this point that I began to have a faint stirring of unease. One of the guides willingly gave his own life in a futile and heroic attempt to save his sister, and Pollack barely devotes a single sentence to this selfless act. Admittedly, the loss of a sister would be a monumentally greater tragedy then the death of a man who he had met only days before, but Pollack never even mentions the name of the hero. I get the distinct impression that he never even bothered to ask.

This, said Pollack, was the end of his childhood. The only remnant of those carefree days that he refused to relinquish was the dream of constructing a boat from wine corks. This was a project that he had to put on hold until adulthood.

Pollack’s undeniable talent for writing led him to a career as a foreign correspondent, which morphed into a job as a speechwriter for a Democratic senator. Eventually he was tapped to work at the White House under Bill Clinton, putting words into the mouth of the POTUS himself.

Employment was spotty, however, resulting in long stretches when Pollack was between jobs. It was during this time that he decided to turn his attention to seeing his impossible childhood dream made reality. He decided to put some work into building the cork boat.

But, talented wordsmith aside, Pollack was completely at sea when it came to the nitty gritty details of assembling a boat out of wine corks. Lucky for him that he met Garth Goldstein, an architectural student whose real-world expertise was vital in steering the project into safe waters. (Okay, okay, I’ll knock off the nautical references.)

Pollack never admits that the project would have never happened without Goldstein, but the events related in the book makes this painfully clear. Goldstein suggested various methods to assemble the corks, came up with the design of the boat, went halfsies on the really hefty shipping fees on some donated corks, and even paid extra rent money so a garage could be used as a work space. Without his efforts there would never have been a boat.

What did Pollack contribute? Mainly he carped and complained about Goldstein, usually because the architect-in-training couldn’t devote himself fully to the project because was working full time to further his budding career. This is in stark contract to Pollack, who would spend all his time on the boat during the periods when he was out of a job and had nothing better to do, but would completely ignore the project when he was pulling in a paycheck. I suppose the author believed that Goldstein might as well ruin his job prospects, just as long as he did so while working on the childhood dream of someone else.

My tolerance for this sort of two-faced double standards came to an end almost exactly at the half way point of the book. It is a weekend, and Goldstein and Pollack are busily working on the boat with some volunteers. They are assembling corks in the garage that Goldstein paid for when an old friend of the architect, not seen in years, appears in the alley. With only that afternoon available, the friend invites Goldstein on a rock climbing trip. It didn’t surprise me when Goldstein agreed.

But this infuriated the author, who lit into Goldstein that evening. How dare he turn his back on Pollack’s childhood dream, even though Goldstein had paid more money and made more sacrifices? The argument raged for a time, but Pollack eventually allowed himself to become mollified just as long as Goldstein agreed to show a greater devotion to the project in the future.

I closed the book at this point and refused to read another word. As I understand it, the boat was completed some time later. I am glad of this, because I really didn’t want to see all of Goldstein’s work, money, and ideas come to naught.

While reading this book, it becomes evident that Pollack is an affable fellow who could sell ice to the Inuit. His charm convinces restaurant owners to help by having the staff save wine corks, for example, and he doesn’t have much trouble finding people willing to volunteer their weekends in order to help assemble the boat. But it also unwittingly shines a glaring light on his pettiness, self absorption, double standards, and sense of entitlement. It also fails to answer the one burning question that kept drifting into my mind….

If this is the way he treats people, how come Pollack still has enough teeth to eat corn on the cob?

8 thoughts on “Book Review: <i>Cork Boat</i>”

  1. Unfortunately, this type of narcissism is all to common among leftist articulate intellectuals. The worse thing is that they can’t even see it. They think that because they support these lofty abstract ideas in the political arena that they have effectively bought an indulgence to forgive the selfishness they commit in their personal lives.

    It might be interesting to contact Goldstein and figure out what he though of the entire project. Pollack wrote a narcissistic story of which he was the visionary hero. The fact that he unselfconsciously reports such appalling behavior suggest that the real story might be even worse. (On the other hand, Pollack might interpret his abuse of his friends as signs of his artistic temperament. He might be proud of it.) Bringing the real story to light might be useful.

    Of course, that would require you actually finishing the book.

    Did you ask your friend what he thought of Pollack’s behavior and why?

  2. “Did you ask your friend what he thought of Pollack’s behavior and why?”

    He was shocked that I formed a bad opinion of Pollack. When I pointed out why I didn’t like the man, he claimed that I had misread the account. It wasn’t until I had him page through the book and look up the specific passages that set my teeth on edge that he agreed that, yes, Pollack acted like a complete jerk to his buddy.

    My coworker had glossed over the parts where Pollack shabbily treated the one person making the greatest sacrifices in order to create help him realize his childhood dream. To my coworker, it was a heartwarming and uplifting account of a man who overcame grave obstacles in pursuit of a whimsical personal goal.

    I couldn’t get past the parts where Pollack treated his greatest supporter like a lazy indentured servant. To me, the book is an account of a spoiled child in an adult’s body, throwing temper tantrums when others don’t jump to satisfy his useless demands.


  3. I see a political allegory.

    Pollack has a childhood dream. Pollack is the individualist, thinker, and seer. Goldstein is merely the technologist.

    Pollack’s idea directs all effort. Goldstein is lucky to be part of the project; he is not as farseeing or dedicated as Pollack. Costs are not a problem, as Goldstein and others will be asked to contribute whatever is needed.

    Goldstein shows that he has no vision when he directs some resources away to mountain climbing; he is delaying the future. If Goldstein would become serious and really apply himself, everything could be accomplished.

    The utility of Pollack’s grand dream is not important. Accomplishing it is the quest, and everyone else must supply the pieces to achieve it. If the boat doesn’t perform well, it can be fixed up later.

    People like Pollack build cork boats in their private lives, and build grand public schemes in their public lives. Reality must be made to conform, and lazy technologists must be made to perform.

  4. thank heavens the guy decided to build a cork boat – and not reduce global warming, or reform the k-12 educational system

  5. “thank heavens the guy decided to build a cork boat – and not reduce global warming, or reform the k-12 educational system”

    He is just a journalist, after all. At least he recognizes that his abilities fall far short of accomplishing anything concrete on his own.


  6. Having just returned from a weekend sailing, my first thought is “What in the world is he going to do with a cork boat ?” I certainly hope he doesn’t try to go to sea. The most inspiring story of this sort I have read is John Guzzwell’s account of building his tiny boat, Trekka, which he then sailed all over the world. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak some years ago. He is a prince of a fellow, unlike the writer of that unreadable book.

  7. Not a word or name for the guide who tried to save his sister? And I imagine his father’s feet planted firmly on the ground not even watching her float away but with his eyes gazing upon… Like father like son. bleh

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