Thursday, August 19, 2010

Books: Morgan, Avery, Teach And The Lafitte Brothers

Some novels are too perfect to become movies (anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez), some novels are dragged kicking and screaming to the big screen (Jane Austen’s creations, which usually come out OK but show up with tousled hair and bodice ripped), some are unintentional movie gold (the swashbucklers of Rafael Sabatini) and some are obviously written with Hollywood in mind (Brett Easton Ellis, anyone?). With absolutely no offense to Keith Thomson, today’s subject falls into that last category.

Pirates of Pensacola was published in 2005 and came out at the beginning of that summer. I had my head so deep in William C. Davis’ miraculous The Pirates Laffite at the time that I couldn’t be troubled with a novel, much less one by a screenwriter. Don’t get me wrong, I love movies dearly (see picture at header of yesterday’s post; continue to search for similar throughout this blog). It just sets my teeth on edge when someone who writes for the big screen presents us with a novel. It’s like a newspaper editor putting out a book of poetry (Edgar A. Poe not withstanding); even with a considerable flair, something is going to go horribly wrong. I wasn’t disappointed when I finally picked up Mr. Thomson’s book and tore through it in a week. On all levels of expectation.

The book opens with one of the most hilarious first paragraphs I’ve ever read, but those sentences aren’t about the main character. Morgan Baker is an accountant for the multi-billion dollar acquisitions conglomerate Vail & Co. in Miami, Florida. Our hero is the standard bean-counter type who was evidently abandoned by his father at the age of nine and spent his life in foster care. His only father figure is his boss, Herb Flick, head of accounting at Vail and every bit the weasel. If Pirates of Pensacola were Office Space, Morgan would be Milton Woddoms.

Trouble comes to Morgan in the form of his Dad Isaac, who shows up on his son’s porch after a long stint in a Florida jail. Isaac starts talking about pirates and treasure and being followed by a man with a hook. Morgan, who has no love for his deadbeat Dad, dismisses the tales as lunacy. Through a series of manipulations, Isaac manages to steal Vail & Co’s private yacht and – almost inadvertently – drag his son down to the Caribbean in it. They are off to the fictional Sugar Islands and a world of modern-day pirates with sabers and hoop earrings and fast ships disguised as shrimpers.

From this point, the novel is quite literally non-stop action. The Bakers are actually the Cookes, a dynastic pirate family that have used the Sugars as a home port since buccaneer days. They are in no way special, however. Well, other than the fact that absolutely every other pirate family (and most of the individual pirates) in the islands seem to be out to get them. The Vails are actually the Hoods who made their fortune in the illegal slave trade and turned to cocaine when that market dried up. Then there are the Lafitte brothers, Emildeau and Faldeau. The two are hereditary barbers stuck in the trade because a Cooke injured their ancestor Jean so badly that he had to give up the sea for shaving other pirates. The brothers, by the way, turn out to be even more Milton Woddoms than Morgan.

It is through the Lafittes (as coincidence, not via polite introduction) that Morgan runs into Polly Teach. She’s the requisite lady pirate masquerading as a manicurist and, unlike her employers, she is descendant from the real pirate who shared her last name. Though Polly gets plenty of buckle to swash in the story she stands out like a sore thumb. There are so many peripheral characters that I was disappointed to find a complete lack of other women outside the brothels on Bonney Street. I would have liked to see that Nycroft the boat builder’s descendant was a chick mechanic with a wry sense of humor for instance. But alas, he’s just another dude.

Avery Vail, the scion of the former Hood family, sends his goons after Isaac and Morgan. The goons, by the way, are Bolidar and Rackham and names such as theirs pepper the book. Squid, Fife, Rotunda, Xebec and Burnie (the cook) are just a few of the more amusing examples. When the goons fail, Avery comes after the Cookes himself and everything from exploding engines (one shot from a pistol is all it takes) to a 17th century Spanish dungeon to hilarious whorehouse antics and a clipper ship in full sail gets thrown into the stew. It’s pirate overload beneath a turquoise sky.

And overload it was indeed. Though the book was fun and Thomson has obviously done his research (even if he did sleep through Pirate History 101), the twists became too twisted for me to bear. By the last fifty pages I didn’t care who was in league with whom and what new “they will never get out of this one!” moment was just around the corner. In fact, all the perils pushed so far toward the finale that the end of the book was a let down, at least for me.

I would recommend Pirates of Pensacola as a beach side read, however. It’s popcorn on the page with a pirate twist, and I guess you can’t argue with that. Either way, I’ll only hurry out to see the movie if Russell Crowe shows up as Isaac. The likelihood of which is probably slim to none.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I know this one frustrated you, but you did seem to have fun with it for the most part, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! It was fun, and even funny. Maybe I just need to lighten up?

Munin said...

Ahoy there, Pauline. It seems I am doomed to be forever playing catchup with your blog... haha. Not that I'm complaining. More goodness for me! I've started to catch up where I left off, but I saw the word "book" in the side bar list, and jumped ahead to this post because I could do with more book recommendations (can't read your blog while I'm tucked up in bed). I was hoping you could do a bibliography of your favourite, and/or most useful/interesting books? Maybe even a multi-post breakdown (fact/fiction/reference, pirate/naval/general etc... )? Maybe you've aleady done one, and I have yet to come across it.

I'm currently wondering where to go after "The Pirates Own", Pyle, O'Brian, Slucom etc... I've just finished reading Batavia's Graveyard by Mike Dash, which was hands down utterly stunning. A huge amount of research and insite. On the fiction front, I've recently completed "The Brethren of the Coast" trilogy by James L.Nelson, which was very enjoyable - particularly books 1 and 3. Now I don't know what to buy next - fact and fiction. A hearty list from a mistress of the sea would be most welcome! :)

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Munin and thank you for your confidence!

If you haven't already, hop (ah! corvid reference!) over to the post on Stephan Talty's "Empire of Blue Water". It's fact but with some fact-based fiction mixed in. I think it's the absolute best book on the life and times of Henry Morgan written in the modern era.

I am currently working on Broos Campbell's Matty Graves novels ("No Quarter" and "War of Knives" so far) which are a seafaring good time in the O'Brian tradition. Matty is a Lieutenant in the fledgling U.S. Navy and I need to set aside some time to do a post on each of these.

I will certainly work on your suggestion. I'm compiling a list in my head even as I write this :) Thanks again and stop in soon. (BTW, speaking of corvids, our ravens are starting to come back from their summer up north; they're so awesome!)

Munin said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I'll check it out. I've ordered some Frederick Marryat, which should keep me going for a bit. Give my regards to my corvid brethren. :)

Pauline said...

Marryat is awesome! I'm sure you'll enjoy him.

A couple of big guys hung out under my eaves in a rainstorm yesterday. I surely thought of you as I spoke with them. My kids always give me a hard time for talking to the ravens. Can't help it, though.