According to Dean King, epic voyages, especially "voyages gone bad . . . demonstrate anew man's ingenuity in the face of adversity, his will to survive and, in the end, his intense desire to go home again." In other words, they evoke precisely what one feels when driving on our nation's highways. Such being the case, surely a tale of peril on the bounding main or of a punishing trek through the wilderness is the ideal accompaniment to this grueling modern adventure.
Dean King is best known for his biography of Patrick O'Brian, in which he revealed the extraordinary truth that the creator of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin was an Englishman of German heritage. Now, in Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival (Books on Tape: unabridged, 13.5 hours; 11 CDs, purchase, $44.96; rental, $18.95. Nine cassettes: purchase, $35.96; rental, $17.95; www.booksontape.com), he has turned his attention to the plight of a crew of American sailors shipwrecked on the coast of Africa, at the edge of the Sahara, in 1815. After escaping one band of slave-takers, the men made their way down the coast in a rotting long boat -- only to be captured again by Bedouin who divvied up the crew among themselves as slaves and set off in different but equally arid directions. Some men did not survive, some were eventually ransomed, and some were lost to history. Narrator Michael Prichard brings a palpable air of determination to this old-fashioned tale of exotic locale and custom, of bravery, endurance, rapacity, foul perfidy and improbable friendship.
A Pirate's Life For Him?
The beverage of choice on the Sahara in those storied days was camel's milk, though urine, both camel and human, was a frequent supplement. Given the centrality of that latter ingredient in King's narrative, it is a relief to turn to the wholesome popping of corks in Richard Zacks's The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd (Tantor: unabridged,19 hours, 16 CDs, $47.20. Two MP3 CDs: $20.79; www.tantor.com), a splendid tale of murky ethics and high-born villainy in the late 17th century. Prichard reads this, too, and does so with a panache that suits the often unseemly piratical details to which the book's author is especially devoted. When the text breaks into song, Prichard gamely follows with a "rum-ti dum, tum-ti dum terro" and "row-de dow, row-de dow derro" -- though surely he is as mortified by the obligation to utter such puerilities as the listener is to hear them.
That aside, the book is a valiant attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of Capt. Kidd, whose privateering career was confused with piracy from its beginning, thanks to the slander and begrudging of certain East India Company and Royal Navy officers. He was further impeached by his own "rodomontade and vainglory"; by the depredations of his mutinous crews; by the evil deeds of his nemesis, a confirmed pirate; by the treachery of aristocratic backers; and by the unquestionable truth that "privateer" is a highly casuistical concept. The Kidd who emerges from these thrilling, would-be revisionist pages, is not a good man perhaps, but a complex and compromised player in a game of fatally high stakes.
The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, by Caroline Alexander (Penguin Audiobooks: 4 cassettes, $25.95), is a stunningly successful work of revisionist history. The figure at its center, Capt. William Bligh, was, though passionate and tactless, an ethical man, an inspired navigator and a conscientious and dependable leader who lost his ship to the fleeting whim of a resentful, drink-impaired youth and his reputation to the machinations of powerful families.
The book is available in two lengths. Michael York delivers the abridged version, which includes a certain amount of 18th-century-style music and nautical racket in the background, giving it the feel of a docudrama. Though his performance is graceful and attentive to character, the elimination of perhaps half the text has consequences. Not only are many wonderful passages absent, but the book progresses more by segueing than by establishing points through a tautly reasoned, meticulous accumulation of evidence, as it does in the uncut version.
That edition, which is approximately 15 hours to the other's six, is read by Englishman Simon Prebble (Penguin Audiobooks: 10 cassettes; $49.95). He is magnificent, as he always is, in getting across the tones of snobbery, class resentment and umbrage which so pervade this triumphant work of historical retrieval.
Lighting Out for the Territories
The Last Crossing, by Guy Vanderhaeghe (Highbridge: abridged, 11 1/4 hours, 10 CDs, $36.95. Eight cassettes, $36.95), begins in London at the end of the 19th century and travels back 20 years to the borderlands between Canada and the United States. The story is told from six points of view and rendered here by six actors: John Henry Cox, John Keating, Colin Lane, Tom McKeon, Chelsey Rivers and our friend Simon Prebble, released from the Bounty only to find himself amid another turbulent crew. Charles and Addington Gaunt have been sent by their chilly English industrialist father to find their brother, who disappeared in Indian country. Charles is dedicated to the task, but Addington, a debauched megalomaniac, is more interested in his own derring-do and has brought along an unsavory American newspaperman, Caleb Ayto, to record it. Their guide is the half-Blackfoot, half-Scot Jerry Potts, and the cook is Lucy Stoveall, who is really intent on tracking down the men who she believes raped and murdered her sister. Custis Straw, a big, bibulous, Bible-reading Civil War veteran, has trooped along to protect her; and he in turn has been followed by Aloysius Dooley, a barkeep who thinks the old campaigner needs looking after. This is a beautifully written tale that evokes a vanished time and place, and which has a satisfying amount of two-fisted, quick-draw action. There are some real surprises, too, and the company of voices that brings it all into being makes it a hard performance to turn off. *
Katherine A. Powers writes a literary column for the Boston Globe.