First Posted: 2/29/2012
Ever since I first learned to read, books have been the frigates on which I’ve embarked to find wonderful, sometimes life-changing, adventures.
Usually, I have no trouble finding a book to talk about in this column, but with this February’s deadline fast approaching, not a single book I’d read recently had captured my interest enough to make me want to share with you. I was getting a little desperate, but my daughter called and recommended a novel by Sara Levine, one of her colleagues at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, called “Treasure Island!!!” .
The book arrived on Valentine’s Day, and as I read the first paragraph, a tiny breeze made the sails of my imaginary craft flutter. What could be more fitting, for a novel that sends a reader off on a voyage of horrified delight, than one in which a nameless 25-year-old slacker narrator becomes obsessed by Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, “Treasure Island”? Our heroine – and I use that term very, very loosely – finds herself becalmed in a meaningless existence. Although she is a college graduate, she has held only a series of brainless, minimum-wage jobs, and is currently a part-time assistant at The Pet Library, .
When Adrianna, our narrator’s sister, forgetfully leaves some library books at the latter’s apartment, our gal begins to read “Treasure Island,” and the character of young Jim Hawkins becomes her inspiration. She compares her life to his, and comes up with the metaphor that will urge her to change her life.
“If life were a sea adventure, I know: I wouldn’t be a sailor, pirate, or cabin boy but more likely a barnacle clinging to the side of the ship,” she realizes. As she tells her best friend, Rena, she wants to discover how she “can become a hero in my own life.” She write out a list of the qualities she most admires in Jim Hawkins: “boldness, resolution, independence, and horn-blowing.” Deciding that these are the “core values” of the book, she resolves to emulate them and begins to make changes in her life.
At this point, you might be thinking that “Treasure Island!!!” is the feel-good story of how a young woman evolves from passivity to positive action, but no – it’s not that simple, predictable or boring. In a dazzling spoof of the standard self-help process, the narrator takes action all right, but her choices are self-serving or wrong-headed at best and destructive and manipulative at worst. Boldness is her first goal, so she steals a big chunk of money from the Pet Library and uses it to buy a Yellow-naped Amazon parrot named Little Richard, intending to use him to beef up the library’s humdrum collection. She plans to teach Richard to squawk not “Pieces of eight,” but “Steer the boat, girlfriend!” the library’s owner is not amused, and although our girl deludes herself into thinking that she has acted boldly by walking away from the library with Richard in tow, but she has, of course, been fired.
Out of a job and broke, she moves into her boyfriend’s apartment, conveniently forgetting that this was her idea, not his. Lars is a sweet, compassionate, logical young man, and they really seem to care for one another, so all goes well for a while, but then she begins spending Lars’ money on herself, and eventually, he asks her to leave. She has nowhere to go but home and moves in with her parents and her sister, who has also moved back home because she can’t afford to live alone either.
Before you can say “Shiver me timbers,” our narrator is trying for the second of Jim Hawkins’ traits: being resolute. Her determination to discover Adrianna’s secret boyfriend creates a domestic tempest that destroys her sister’s happiness and threatens to capsize her parents’ marriage.
The thing is, the author seems to dare you to dislike this girl, and you want to hate her – but you can’t. Yes, she does terrible things, and yes, she makes disastrous, selfish choices, and yes, she never – until the novel’s satisfying conclusion – seems to have a clue that she is the problem, but she’s so darn funny and outrageous and awful that you can’t help but like her in a perverse sort of way.
In addition to serving up a hearty helping of interesting and beautifully rendered characters, she infuses the novel with references to contemporary culture, and gives us a writer’s voice that is witty, sure, and blazingly original. You’ll barrel through this fast-paced book in a couple of hours because you won’t be able to put it down. Then you’ll want to flip back to page one and immediately start reading it again because, even though it blows along like a gale-force wind, it is not a simple, slight, or predictable book. Between bouts of laughter and gasps of dismay, “Treasure Island !!!” makes you think.
On my second reading, I honed in on a conversation the narrator has with Beverly Flowers, the last in a long line of therapists she’s seen over the years. Beverly is a “Personal Healer,” a sort of New-Agey massage therapist who tries to help our heroine rid herself of her obsession with Jim Hawkins. Beverly says that Long John Silver, not Hawkins, is the novel’s center, and describes him: “Charismatic personality, repellant morally speaking, and it’s amazing how he gets around on that one leg,” she says.
Yikes! Suddenly I realized that Beverly is describing our narrator to a tee. Our girl may not have a wooden leg, but she is handicapped by her preoccupation with herself and her denial of what that self has become. She claims to have no interest in “Treasure Island’s” pirates, but ironically, it turns out that she is the pirate in Levine’s story – an outlaw who, in attempting to transform herself into a bold, resolute, independent, horn-blowing woman, eventually discovers that the X that marks the spot on her personal treasure map is near at hand, requiring only a short drive in the family’s Taurus to find.