Books

Dark passages and wry prose in Daniel Handler novel ‘We Are Pirates’

jwestberg@modbee.com

Pirates, much like Vikings, knights and nude beaches, are romantic only in the abstract.

“We Are Pirates,” Daniel Handler’s latest novel, pushes our modern affection for the buccaneer myth to its logical (and gruesome) conclusion.

The novel oscillates between the perspectives of Phil Needle, a Bay Area radio producer, and Gwen, his perpetually embarrassed 14-year-old daughter.

Phil is one failed project away from losing his bay-view condo and one extramarital affair away from a midlife crisis. And his latest pitch — a human-interest piece about a musician named Belly Jefferson — doesn’t sound promising.

Gwen has troubles of her own, thanks to a flighty friend and a failed attempt at shoplifting. As punishment, her parents force her to volunteer at a nursing home, where she meets Errol, a salty Alzheimer’s patient with a fierce love of pirate lore.

Fans of Handler’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” (written as Lemony Snicket) will find, in Gwen’s voice, a similar balance of melancholy and whimsy. Handler has a keen sense for the greatest injustice of adolescence: the twinned feelings of infinite capability and complete impotence. The result is a crisply voiced portrait of a teen desperate to outrun adulthood and its dreary obligations.

“She was a hockey puck,” he writes. “People hit her with sticks and sent her places, but who cares, even when she scores a goal? The goal wasn’t hers. It belonged to the people who hit her.”

It comes as little surprise when Gwen discovers her own predilection for piracy, enlisting an unlikely crew to steal a theater troupe’s replica pirate ship. But piracy, Handler reminds us, is more than rhetoric and romance.

“We want to forge a social order beyond the realm of traditional authority,” one character says, shortly before slicing a woman to pieces with a kitchen knife.

Still, Handler’s wry prose keeps even the darkest passages from tipping off balance. The author treats language the way some treat fashion, tooling intentionally jarring or ugly phrases to striking effect. “She seemed like she looked cute,” he writes, “with trendy shoes and a slightly lovely top.”

Nautical puns and clever metaphors share space with a ceaseless slew of one-liners: “She had a little bell tied to her walker,” he writes of one nursing-home occupant, “though the birds in danger would have to be flightless and slow.”

The novel’s structure can feel at times deliberately disorienting. Phil’s voice is peppered with mysterious references to someone named Eleanor (Snicket fans will think of Beatrice), and we meet Gwen’s imagined alter ego, Octavia, before we’re introduced to Gwen herself.

This is old hat for Handler, whose novels often seem to mimic the information flow of an especially intricate whodunit. Off-hand quips are repurposed, sometimes to great significance, 50 pages later; puzzling references to unfamiliar events are explained long after we’ve forgotten them, if they’re explained at all. If it’s frustrating, it’s also deliriously entertaining, the surprise usually worth the wait.

But Handler’s attempts at a Snicket-esque narrator don’t quite work. The novel begins and ends in the voice of an unnamed male narrator, but the story sails so seamlessly in and out of Phil’s and Gwen’s perspectives that the frame seems unnecessary, the asides more distracting than illuminating.

And the novel stumbles again in a series of self-aware, but no less shoehorned, jabs at race. See Phil’s crazed and aging father, hurling rants about “the blacks” into the phone.

See Phil’s tacit acknowledgment of privilege (“There was a look white people shared on the subway, when other people were misbehaving.”). See the author’s own awkward aside after a Haitian character is introduced: “Just about everybody else, by the way, in this book is white.”

The novel is at its confident best when it abandons these competing bells and whistles for the wry and wounded voice of adolescence. In Gwen’s perspective, even the darkest, most grotesque acts are imbued with a sort of fragile magic, a veneer of whimsy we simultaneously cling to and understand as false.

History is written by the winners, the narrator reminds us. Consider “We Are Pirates” an alternate history, then, one in which losers are at least recognized, though not rewarded.

We Are Pirates, by Daniel Handler (269 pages; Bloomsbury; $26)

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