Fiction has a certain mathematical element to it. The theme and plot should add up to an ending that feels inevitable to the reader.
But while “The Last Bookaneer,” by bestselling author of “The Dante Club” Matthew Pearl, is a fun read, the math is off.
In the late 1800s, international copyright laws were weak and an author’s manuscript could be easily stolen from one country and published in another — profitable for the publishing houses but a great loss for the authors. Pearl’s research shows the thieves were called “bookaneers.”
Set in 1891 New York, we meet Clover, a teenage dining car attendant who is befriended by Fergins, a traveling bookseller.
Fergins tells Clover the following story: Two competing bookaneers set off to the Samoan island of Upolu to steal Robert Louis Stevenson’s final novel. One bookaneer, Belial, poses as a missionary and is taken into Stevenson’s confidence. Fergins works for and is traveling with the other, Davenport, who claims to be writing a travel guide.
Will they snatch the book or not? Who is trustworthy?
On nearly every other page, Pearl plants the notion of one thing taking up residence in another. Wolf in sheep’s clothing, sheep in wolf’s clothing.
Some examples: Clover explains how he fell in love with books through reading Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” What charmed him was that, clothed in poetry, biblical doctrine became “flesh and bone.” His parents didn’t like that he was into the poetry, not the Bible, so they took away the book.
Also, Clover is of mixed race and a physiognomist explains that due to his “features of the Caucasian in the cerebral area” he has “greater capacity for intellectual growth over the common Negro.” The physiognomist perceives Clover as a black man inhabited by a white man.
Later, Stevenson tells the bookaneers that native Samoans must never wear European clothing. “If they try to look European, which amuses them and some of the local whites, they die.”
For most of the book, the theme and plot work well together and make sense. About two-thirds of the way through, once the Samoan adventure is over, the theme overruns the plot. Fergins becomes clearly unreliable as a narrator and Clover seems lost and bewildered.
All of this isn’t to say the book won’t be a great poolside read. It will be. And “Treasure Island” fans will enjoy the look into Stevenson’s island life. Just don’t try to work it all out on your fingers.
Anne Kniggendorf, Special to The Star
The Last Bookaneer; Matthew Pearl; Penguin Press; 400 pages; $27.95