“When they dreamed of turning iron and metal into gold, they called it alchemy,” muses Pen Davenport, one of the protagonists of Matthew Pearl’s newest novel, "The Last Bookaneer." “The much more far-fetched dream of turning bound sheafs of plain paper into fortunes, they call publishing.”
That aspiration for literature-fueled wealth lies at the heart of this not-quite-thrilling tale. Because until recently books had no copyrights outside of the country in which they were first issued, Pearl speculates that literary pirates would acquire manuscripts in one country — by any means necessary — and smuggle them into another. There they would sell these purloined documents to complicit publishers, who would print and market them without obtaining the author’s consent or paying royalties. An international treaty signed at the turn of the 20th century effectively put an end to this practice, which had raised profits for the books’ issuers, lowered prices for readers, but robbed authors like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens of significant earnings.
Give Cambridge resident Pearl credit for bravery. Not many authors go looking for plot points in changes to copyright law (and for good reason). But in “The Last Bookaneer,” Pearl audaciously, if unsuccessfully, tries to build a suspenseful novel around the imagined shenanigans of the last and best of these literary mercenaries.
Pen Davenport and a man known only by his adopted name, Belial (a biblical demon), have competed with one another for years, each aspiring to heists of greater height as they travel the globe to steal or simply plagiarize handwritten manuscripts, printer’s proofs and first editions that will feed the greed and booklust of their employers. Now, as implementation of the new treaty looms on the horizon and publishers will be penalized for appropriating the intellectual property of others, it is clear to both men that their profession is on the verge of obsolescence. Both are determined to achieve the same final coup — insinuate themselves into the household of the ailing Robert Louis Stevenson, then steal and sell the manuscript of his new, and likely last, novel.
But Stevenson, frail yet fiercely independent, has taken up residence in Vailima, a mountain compound that he’s built for himself and his family in Samoa. On this hellishly humid South Pacific island where anti-colonial sentiment is flaring, Stevenson is quietly fanning the flames.
Tropical locales, the author of “Treasure Island,” a battle among rakish thieves — these ingredients should make for a rip-roaring tale. But instead Pearl has taken a strangely toothless bite at the hand that feeds him.
“People in the book world always hated the bookaneers because our operations forced them to be honest with themselves about what the whole thing really is — that literature and money were two edges of a single sword,” a practitioner of the trade explains to bookseller Clarence Fergins, one of the novel’s two narrators. While true, this is hardly a revelation. The idea that books can simultaneously be transformative for individual readers and fungible for the businesses that distribute them, keeps popping up throughout the novel, but Pearl does little to develop it.
He leaves the character and significance of Clover, Fergins’ confidant and protégé, similarly unformed. The son of a black woman and a white minister — a man who supplies him with books but denies him the right to attend his church — Clover is the book’s other narrator. But while the occasional shift in perspective from Fergins to Clover meets Pearl’s plot engineering needs, it does little to deepen our understanding of either the characters or their times. Clover embodies the germ of an idea, as if Pearl had some vague notion of how Clover’s hunger for autonomy might mirror that of the Samoan natives. But withering from lack of authorial attention, Clover is largely relegated to the role of deus ex machina.
Weighted down by period prose that, like a doily, is largely decorative, “The Last Bookaneer” had just enough vigor to pull me through it, but is far from a page-turner until its surprising last chapter. There, Pearl’s visual imagination, and even his prose, crackle into life, and he’s able to sustain some animation. Perhaps had the novel been half the length — had some editorially shrewd bookaneer seen fit to spirit away the vague philosophizing and limp digressions — it would have been one worth stealing.
Matthew Pearl will be reading from “The Last Bookaneer” on Friday, May 1, at 7:00 p.m. at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge.
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, fiction and is a regular contributor to Cognoscenti. By day, she leads the product innovation team for Communispace Corporation, a Boston-based consumer collaboration company. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.