Matthew Pearl’s new novel, The Last Bookaneer, conjures the romance and subterfuge of 19th-century literary piracy. His heroes are buccaneering bookworms – men and women in the shadowy profession of stealing manuscripts from illustrious authors and selling them to publishers. Pearl’s artistic license in imagining this dubious trade is substantial, but his novel grows from historical truths about book publishing. Charles Dickens was just one of many 19th-century literary luminaries who suffered, often quite noisily, from the effects of weak copyright laws; many of his fellow authors would have been far wealthier if they profited from sales of every edition of their works on both sides of the Atlantic.
"The Last Bookaneer" is essentially a heist caper, and the prize jewel that the literary thieves covet is the manuscript of Robert Louis Stevenson’s unpublished last novel. Pearl nests the main narrative of this quest inside a framing story in which an old bookseller and former literary pirate befriends a young man eager to learn the lore from a veteran. The old bookaneer, Mr. Fergins, obliges him with tales of his apprenticeship to a master thief named Penrose Davenport. The culminating mission of Davenport’s career is a voyage to the Samoan island of Upolu, “known for headhunters and cannibals.”
The island is also where Robert Louis Stevenson bought land in 1889, five years before his death, and assumed the name Tusitala – Samoan for “teller of tales.” Pearl again embroiders this core of historical fact with extravagant and enjoyable whimsy. Davenport schemes to outwit a rival bookaneer aptly named Belial, a devilish and deceitful nemesis posing as a missionary. Davenport, in turn, has assumed the disguise of a travel writer, and the two men compete to insinuate themselves into Stevenson’s confidence in order to steal the manuscript he’s nearly completed.
The Samoan setting allows for some lush atmospherics: sweltering jungles, topless native women, and intricate tribal politics. Cannibals and human heads mounted on spikes make their due appearances. But the cultural exotica also enables an interesting dynamic: We study the various European characters studying the local culture. Some hold a primly condescending view of the Samoans as savages, an attitude that their own behavior quickly undermines. Others treat the locals with anthropological curiosity, as if they were simply human equivalents to the island’s strange flora and fauna, while still others behave with something approaching broad-minded humanity (the character of Robert Louis Stevenson usually manages this, though there’s something faintly ludicrous in his whole-hearted adoption of Samoan dress and custom.)
The novel’s plot is as dense and florid as the Samoan jungle; prickly tangles of schemes and counter-schemes catch at your ankles on nearly every page. A satisfying inversion permeates all these thickets of incident and adventure. Usually readers become smugglers and thieves, lovers or spies, only vicariously; a tale transports them while they stay in the safe confines of a comfortable armchair. Pearl takes classic bookworm types and thrusts them squarely into the dangers and delights they usually experience only imaginatively. This allows the frame narrative to assume an additional clever meaning: We as readers constitute a final implied frame of the story. An old bookseller narrates his escapades to a young book lover, and he, in turn, addresses us. We too are complicit in the escapism inherent to adventure stories.
Pearl inserts some playful echoes of Stevenson’s fiction in the story. A character awaking to find himself in a ship heading away from home recalls "Kidnapped," while elements of the island drama inevitably evoke "Treasure Island." His depiction of Stevenson vividly captures the eccentricity, grandiosity, and brilliance of the famous novelist. Pearl has Stevenson explain his retreat to an island as part of a venerable tradition in English literature: “People talk of 'Robinson Crusoe' as the beginning of the modern novel, but Defoe based his book on the account of Alexander Selkirk, who stranded himself on an island purposely. Don’t you see? That’s how English literature was born, by marooning ourselves far away from everyone else.”
The dialogue of all the characters is similarly crisp and insightful. Pearl imagines the 19th century as an age of aphorism, a time when quotable lines rolled off literary tongues with ease and flair. Every few pages features some burst of wit: “Publishers do not have friends.” “Authors do not create literature; they are consumed by it.” “The Englishman is too superstitious to question good fortune, the Londoner too intellectual to accept it.”
Pearl has many considerable strengths: he’s deeply knowledgeable about the history of literature, he seems to have an infinite capacity to generate plot lines and clever dialogue, and he imbues settings across the globe with tangible reality. Near the end of the novel the intricate plot starts to slip into stylized contrivance. The dénouement feels more like the solution to a complex logic puzzle than the resolution of a story. And the characters also hover near the edges of caricature at points, flattened into a few predictable obsessions and quirks.
But somehow these flaws feel minor. A line that Pearl attributes to Stevenson also describes the charms of his own exuberant book: “The romance of it mattered more than the real people.”