Books about books tend to rank pretty high on my list of preferred subjects. Usually these tend to be novels about the lives of famous authors but I also appreciate when writers manage to write books about books without following the easy path. Whether it’s a portrait of a famous writer told from some outsider’s perspective or follows a book’s legacy through the ages, these types of books speak to this bibliophile’s soul. Matthew Pearl rarely approaches his novels about novels directly. I was first captivated by Pearl’s The Dante Club, in which several famous poets unravel a mystery surrounding Dante’s The Inferno (and it remains my favorite of Pearl’s novels). His upcoming The Last Bookaneer continues Pearl’s legacy of paying tribute to not only the great writers of the nineteenth century, but the publishing industry itself at a time when so much was changing in the world at large.
Mr. Clover is a young African-American man working as a waiter for a rail company based out of New York City. Growing disillusioned with his job and life in New York, Mr. Clover, a bit of a bookworm, is really only close to Mr. Fergins, an old Englishman with a book cart he brings aboard the trains in the hopes of selling to the riders. When a delay allows the two men to talk at length, Mr. Fergins begins telling Mr. Clover of his days as a bookseller in England and his adventures working with the bookaneers, the men and women with a knack for acquiring manuscripts for publishers in the days before copyright laws extended across the ocean. Eventually, the copyright laws were set to change and the bookaneers’ days were numbered, but there was time for one last job involving Robert Louis Stevenson’s final manuscript, a job whose glory the remaining great bookaneers were racing and competing to claim.
One of the things that Pearl always does well (even in his novels that I’m not as fond of) is separate the writer from the work, the manuscript from the published book. Each step of the process is rightly acknowledged as unique. Even when the book is published, it isn’t necessarily finished because changes can be made upon subsequent editions, mistakes can be made that alter the writer’s words. It’s a fact that can be hard to grasp; I don’t think I fully managed to understand just how much some really famous novels were altered, many times by the writers themselves after they were first published, until grad school when we went about comparing them. Of course, it’s an idea that extends to translations as well, though there the differences are more tangible and easier to recognize.
It didn’t take long for this novel to remind me a bit of Pearl’s The Last Dickens, which also involved the thieving ways of the bookaneers. In fact, in a bit of an afterword Pearl admits that part of the desire to write The Last Bookaneer came from wanting to expand on the bookaneers from The Last Dickens, two of whose characters appear/are alluded to in The Last Bookaneer. I, for one, would love at least one more novel featuring some of the bookaneer characters; more specifically, I’d love to have a novel centered on Kitten and her career, including the mission to find Mary Shelley’s original novelette of the Frankenstein story.
There were many allusions to Frankenstein within The Last Bookaneer, a fact I found surprising given that the bookaneers’ last hurrah surrounded Robert Louis Stevenson. Some allusions worked better than others. The embedded narratives could be tedious when it came to pacing. Shorter chapters also would have helped with the pacing issues. But though it was slow to start and the end was a little much, the main tale featuring Fergins, Davenport, Belial, and Stevenson on the South Seas island of Samoa was compelling and left me wanting more tales of the bookaneers’ adventures (particularly those of Kitten since there were so few female characters in the novel and those present were, literally, always narrated through a male perspective).
The Last Bookaneer will be available for purchase April 28, 2015.