Book review: The Last Bookaneer, Matthew Pearl

Matthew Pearl shows glimpses of what kind of book he could write, says Allan Massie

Matthew Pearl. Picture: Contributed

When a novel appears with a recommendation from Dan Brown, who calls Matthew Pearl “an unusually gifted author”, some readers will be immediately attracted. Others who regard Dan Brown’s he bestseller, The Da Vinci Code as a farrago of unmitigated nonsense, will equally surely be repelled. Mr Pearl is more literate than Mr Brown, nevertheless The Last Bookaneer is, for the most part, pretty fair nonsense too. Nevertheless Pearl’s previous novels, some of them with a literary theme The Last Dickens, The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow are also described as bestsellers, even if not quite on the Dan Brown scale. Pearl, like, it seems, nine out of ten American novelists today, teaches or has taught, Creative Writing to aspiring university students. So it is not surprising that his novel is somewhat tricksy and clever, or at least sets out to be clever.

A word on the title first. A bookaneer is apparently a literary pirate, sometimes dealing in stolen manuscripts, more often acting as an agent for foreign, and especially American, publishers in the days before there was international copyright to protect authors. Nineteenth century novelists such as Scott, Dickens, Thackeray and Stevenson all suffered from the willingness of American publishers to bring out pirated editions of their work from which they earned nothing. The unhappy authors regarded this as theft (as indeed it was and, if we are to believe Mr Pearl, his bookaneers were unscrupulous criminals active in the book trade. I had thought the word his own coinage, but in an end-note he attributes it to the poet Thomas Hood, writing in 1837. Since however neither Chambers nor the OED has any record of the word, it may be that Mr Pearl indeed deserves the credit, and that the Hood attribution is a spoof.)

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The novel begins in the dining-cars of an American train where Clover, a young mixed-race steward with a taste for reading encounters an old Englishman who pushes a cart through the train selling books to customers. This is all rather nicely done. Then one day, off-duty, Clover meets the old bookseller in a court-house where the accused, described as a mulatto, addresses him with an appearance of anger or reproach in a foreign tongue. This leads the bookseller to tell the story of his dealings with the bookaneers.

The scene shifts to London where we encounter the most famous of the bookaneers: Whiskey Bill, Pen Davenport, described as a criminal genius, the Frenchwoman he loves who is known as Kitten, and the utterly sinister and fearsome Belial. None of this this is very convincing, or indeed interesting. Mr Pearl’s London is very much second or even third-hand, and it requires a considerable suspension of belief to accept that the book trade is peopled by quite such dangerous criminals.

The word is, however, that in Samoa, in the South Seas, Robert Louis Stevenson is terminally ill while at work on what is believed to be his masterpiece. So the bookaneers set off in pursuit. 
The Samoan section is very much better than the London one, principally because Pearl now has interesting material to draw on – biographies of Stevenson and Stevenson’s own writings on Samoan politics and the ambitions of German colonists and administrators. The depiction of Stevenson is conventional, though I don’t know what evidence Pearl has for Stevenson’s declaration that The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was his worst book. The assumption that Stevenson was suffering from a terminal illness is false. Though often weary and depressed and harassed by family quarrels and his intervention in Samoan politics, Stevenson was actually in better health than for years. The cerebral haemorrhage which killed him came, as this usually does, suddenly and without warning. Much of the Samoan section is quite enjoyable, though the bookaneers’ rivalry and plotting remains unconvincing and therefore uninteresting.

Much of the writing is fairly dreadful: “Kitten, you ought to know, was a thing of beauty. I choose the word with the care a poet might, for the thing that made her irresistible was vague...” She “did not subscribe to society’s usual dictates to women, except, of course, when she assumed a role for the purpose of bookaneering”. It really won’t do, any more than when on the next page Kitten tells the narrator that “the stereotype plates Pen wanted have been moved to a catacomb under an old circulating library up north.”Catacombs indeed; perhaps this accounts for Dan Brown’s admiration.

Of course it might be said in Pearl’s defence that this is all harmless fooling and that there is nothing here to be taken seriously. Certainly there is little that can be taken seriously by any but the most naïve and credulous reader. Yet what is irritating is first the pervasive note of literary pretentiousness; second the implication that the reader is expected to take it all more seriously than the author does, for one senses a certain condescension as if Mr Pearl’s tongue is firmly in his cheek; and third, the suspicion, alerted by a few passages, that he could write a better novel, true to both experience and imagination, if he set himself to do so. Of course such a novel would probably not be a bestseller, and might provide less material for discussion in his Creative Writing classes. But it might be worth reading, which The Last Bookaneer sadly isn’t.