Book World: Kristi Lanier reviews Sara Levine’s “Treasure Island!!!”

December 13, 2011

In “Treasure Island!!!,” Sara Levine’s comic first novel, a 25-year-old woman who’s busy avoiding reality develops an absurd obsession with Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic pirate story for boys. The result is a bitterly funny story about misguided ambition in the modern world.

Levine’s underemployed (and unnamed) heroine has been drifting between menial jobs since college, but while working at a “pet library,” she starts reading Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” Inspired by the story’s adventure, she determines to upend her status quo and live by what she calls Stevenson’s “Core Values”: boldness, resolution, independence and horn-blowing.

Except our heroine is an acerbic narcissist who mistakes selfishness for boldness, callousness for resolution, and theft for independence. Blowing her own horn is the only value she actually seems to master.

Naturally, this combination of self-delusion and yearning for betterment sweeps aside family, friends and all pretensions of sanity. What follows is a series of eyebrow-cocking misadventures as she applies the Core Values to everyone but herself. In a bid for boldness, for instance, she steals money from her employer to buy a $1,000 parrot for the business and then can’t fathom her boss’s wrath. In a try at resolution, she refuses to leave when her boyfriend kicks her out after she tried to nurture his “emotional honesty” by divulging his private thoughts to his mother. Those missteps land her back in her family home with her unwanted parrot, staid parents and debt-ridden adult sister — soon to be another victim of her meddling.

All this comic wrangling over “Treasure Island” and Core Values might be charming if the narrator weren’t quite so badly behaved, but she’s so self-involved, mean-spirited and tone-deaf to other people’s feelings that it’s hard to laugh when her actions prompt yet another madcap scene.

Levine, though, is clearly not as oblivious as her character. A revelation to the reader — if not to the narrator — comes midway through when an alternative healer suggests that the real center of “Treasure Island” is not the righteous boy hero Jim Hawkins but the villainous pirate Long John Silver.

Levine sports an original, brutally witty voice, and she can hone characters to a sharp edge, but her outrageous narrator risks growing stale. By the closing chapters, she’s still throwing the same poisonous barbs as in Chapter 1. If she were a pirate, we’d make her walk the plank and be done with her.

Lanier is a freelance writer in Seattle.

TREASURE ISLAND!!!

By Sara Levine

Europa. 172 pp. $15

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