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    Fires, collisions, and Kurt Russell: The untold history of David Foster Wallace’s cruise ship.

    James Folta

    April 9, 2024, 2:46pm

    Her name was Zenith, and she deserves to sail alongside Pequod, Demeter, and the ship of Theseus in the fleet of literature’s floating icons. You probably won’t recognize her name, but you no doubt know this ship made famous by David Foster Wallace in his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” originally titled “Shipping Out”.

    The Zenith (Wallace recasts her as the Nadir) is both a setting and a character in Wallace’s essay. He describes her “genuinely planet-shattering,” “flatulence-of-the-gods-like” horn, her “railings made of really good wood,” and her engine producing “a kind of spinal throb, oddly soothing.”

    But what happened to this minor literary star after DFW disembarked and took all of his footnotes home? Tipped off by a tweet, I dug around for more details about Zenith in the travel and cruise industry trades, among headlines like “Amex GBT-CWT linkup is full of upside” and “Alaska Cruise Port Will Enforce Passenger Limits Starting in 2026.” Turns out, she had an eventful life.

    Zenith was built in 1992 and sailed in service of Celebrity Cruises, taking passengers around Florida and the Caribbean. Zenith was a child star, and had her first brush with fame in the 1992 Kurt Russell, Martin Short comedy Captain Ron, a film that makes the boggling choice to cast Short as the straight man to Russell’s zany Captain. Zenith, if Wikipedia is to be believed, has a star turn in the film’s final shot, blaring its horn as it plows towards a collision with Russell’s puny motorboat.

    Is this really the Zenith? I spent too long comparing the bow from the movie to photos of Zenith and can conclude: maybe. But isn’t it more fun to imagine it is?

    Wallace took his essaying trip a few years later, in March of 1995, while Zenith was in her prime. Contemporary reviews are remarkable artifacts of the late ’90s to early 2000s bleeding edge of luxury technology. In 2005, Zenith was among the first ships you could check into online, and a 2006 Travel Weekly review marveled at Zenith’s amenities for web-surfers: “I noted in my reporters pad, ‘Internet cafe,’ and promised myself to check it out later.” Priced at “50 cents a minute for the Internet, and 50 cents a minute for Word, PowerPoint and 1-2-3,” Zenith was perfect for travelers wanting to spend two minutes perfecting the bevel and arch on some WordArt for only $1.

    It wasn’t all premium Powerpoint access, though. Zenith caught fire twice, on August 18, 2009 in a welding accident, and on June 25, 2013 in an engine accident. She also ran aground (May 2, 2009), collided with another cruise ship (July 27, 2008), and had three Norovirus outbreaks (April 2004, March, 2005, April 2007).

    Maybe not GOAT numbers, but for the literary world? Pretty good. Is Shteyngart’s Icon of the Seas putting up these kinds of stats?

    After over two decades in service for different cruise lines, Zenith was sold in 2019 to Peace Boat, an altruistically oriented cruise line founded in the ‘80s by Yoshioka Tatsuya. The activist was nominated for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize, and his seemed like a fitting flag for Zenith to sail under in her sunset days.

    But 2020 had different plans, and Zenith followed the rest of the cruise industry into dock. Sad headlines followed: “Unwanted Japanese cruise ship changes hands” and “Former Celebrity Zenith Takes Final Voyage to Scrapyard.” In 2022, Zenith’s cruise came to an end in Gujarat, at the Alang Ship Breaking Yard where rows of ships are nosed into the shore, waiting to be broken.

    For a volatile star of film and literature who survived fires, viruses, and ’90s Hollywood flops, I can imagine worse fates. Better to be melted down and recycled than to fade away.

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