When I received an email from the publisher wanting to know if I’d like a review copy of Matthew Pearl’s newest book The Last Bookaneer I thought sure! I mean it’s about book pirates and even better it promised adventure in pursuit of a final novel and masterpiece by Robert Louis Stevenson. It seemed like it could be Treasure Island with books instead of gold doubloons.
The elements are all there for a swashbuckling tale. An ailing Robert Louis Stevenson is living in Samoa and reportedly working on a novel, sure to be his last and sure to be a masterpiece. The International Copyright Act of 1891 has been passed and goes into effect on July 1st, a law that will effectively cut off pirating of British books in America. We have two of the last great bookaneers, Penrose Davenport and Belial, each wanting to get their hands on Stevenson’s manuscript and sell it to an American publisher for a small fortune before the copyright act goes into effect and ends their careers for good. A rivalry, a race against time, planning and scheming to get into the Stevenson household and, once the book is completed, steel it and make a getaway. Doesn’t that sound exciting?
Unfortunately, the story plods along and most evenings managed to make my eyes start drooping within ten to fifteen minutes of picking up the book. The biggest problem is the way the story is told. Edgar Fergins, bookseller and former assistant to Davenport is our narrator. He befriends a young railway waiter, Mr. Clover, and begins dropping hints of his colorful past. He even takes Clover to see a trial of a man who turns out to be Belial, Davenport’s rival. But we don’t know this until later, much later. Fergins is helping with the trial as he is an expert in all things bookish including identifying documents and handwriting. When Fergins is severely burned in a fire at the courthouse that destroys all the trial evidence, Clover visits him regularly to help nurse him back to health. During these visits Fergins narrates the final showdown between Davenport and Belial.
It takes a very long time to get going because we are treated to Fergins’ backstory and how he came to be Davenport’s assistant, lots of bookaneer backstory that hints at excitement and treachery but ultimately has nothing to do with the current story. We also get lots of backstory about Davenport, a big, handsome man who fell in love with Kitten, one of the few women bookaneers. She was older than Davenport and also his mentor. Her death torments Davenport and is meant to provide him a brooding, emotional depth that just doesn’t work, especially when we eventually, very late in the book, get the whole story of what happened. It all turns out to be rather anticlimactic. And Belial, we don’t know much about him at all. At times it seems that just when the story is about to get exciting it is abruptly interrupted by Clover asking questions. This is done in such a way that occasionally makes it difficult to tell that it is Clover speaking and not some weird non sequitur.
When we finally get to Samoa and meet Stevenson, he turns out to be a bit of a thin, cardboardy, one-dimensional character. He is called “Tusitala” by the “natives” which means teller of stories. He has a large estate and presides over it and all of his Samoan servants as a benevolent patriarch. The Germans are the ones who first colonized Samoa and the plot gets side tracked with politics and hints of Stevenson supplying arms to the Samoans and fomenting a rebellion against the Germans. There are also mostly naked, beautiful Samoan women, cannibals, heads on stakes and other pointless diversions that sometimes made be feel like I was reading a very bad retelling of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
In addition to attempting to be an adventure tale, The Last Bookaneer tries to provide commentary on copyright law and the book and publishing world, some of it in jest. For instance, we get remarks about bookselling being a dying and unprofitable business. But we also are treated to comforting comments about the joys of reading:
Books could function in two different ways he told me one time, ‘They can lull us as would a dream, or they could change us, atom by atom, until we are closer to God. One way is passive, the other animating—both worthy.’
When it comes to copyright, the bookaneers see themselves as liberators of books, providing access that would have otherwise been denied or at the least, made difficult or expensive. But yet there are authors trying to make a living who are harmed by what the bookaneers do. Even Stevenson at one point in the novel rails against those who have stolen his right to income from his own work. It is an echo of the digital copyright battle happening today with publishers and a good many authors on one side and pirates on the other with the reading public caught in the middle. Perhaps in an attempt at seeing things from both sides, Pearl himself makes no judgment in spite of the novel being about book pirates.
In a sort of afterword, Pearl acknowledges that he did not make up the name of bookaneer. It was first used by the poet Thomas Hood in 1837. Nineteenth century publishers really did hire agents to obtain potentially valuable manuscripts before copyright laws caught up with them. Pearl took the idea and ran with it. Or, tried to run with it but manages at best an awkward, hopping kind of gait. It’s a real shame the book didn’t turn out to be the one I wanted to read. It would probably make a good beach or poolside book, one where it doesn’t matter if you don’t pay much attention, get it covered with sand or splashed with water or fruity cocktail. In fact, it might be really perfect for with a cocktail or two while sitting in the shade of an umbrella, a clear blue sky above and a long, lazy warm afternoon before you. If you feel your eyes begin to droop, let them and enjoy the nap.