KINGSTON BY STARLIGHT
By Christopher John Farley
Three Rivers. 330 pp. Paperback, $13.95
Good people, have ye heard the tale of Anne Bonny? The Irish-born lass who bound her breasts, pretended to be a lad and set sail as a fearsome pirate? Who terrorized the Caribbean with cutlass and pistol? Whose trial in Jamaica in 1720 drew mobs of spectators and inspired florid bestsellers? As one of the pirates in Christopher John Farley's novelization of Anne Bonny's life says, " 'Tis a thing . . . hardly to be believed, except that it is true."
Aye, 'tis true. And it would be difficult to imagine a better premise for a historical novel than this story, crammed as it is with real-life adventure, romance and Shakespeare-worthy gender deception. And yet -- mariners, beware! -- it is no simple feat to write a serious pirate novel. The shoals of camp are always nigh. One "Ahoy!" too many, one extraneous peg-legged captain accessorized with a parrot, and you've drifted into Errol Flynn territory, never to return. Still, I set off reading Kingston by Starlight with the highest aspirations, hoping that if Farley could not render his sea story as vividly as Patrick O'Brian, then at least his prose would approach the keen realism that other modern writers (such as Peter Carey and Darin Strauss) have brought to their period novels.
Alas, I was quickly disappointed. There's no question that Farley is a gifted researcher, but I'm not so certain about his success as a novelist. The story is told as a first-person memoir, yet that person -- the extraordinary Anne, who should dance off the page -- feels like an awkward construct. She is half diligent historical reporter ("When night came, for our supper, I would prepare Stamp and Go, which is codfish flavor'd with onion and garlic and black pepper and other spices, rolled in a golden batter and fried") and half shameless bodice-ripper (when she loses her virginity, she reports a penetration, heaven help her, as "deep as powder and ball rammed in a musket").
But there are narrative problems, as well. Anne's youth is skimmed over with undue haste (an unrequited love for sport and a brief encounter with a wolf are meant to justify her lifelong taste for adventure), while the novel stalls a few times to pick a bone about slavery, using a righteous tone that I couldn't believe from this 18th-century rural Irishwoman. And there are other more obvious anachronisms as well -- such as when Anne uses matches, which were not invented until 1827.
But mostly there is all that heavily brocaded pirate prose. Lo, there is much quaffing of grog (including the sentence "There was much quaffing of grog"). Emphatic statements are sworn "by my troth!" or "by Pluto's damn'd lake!," and pirate captains boldly promise, "The men that sail with me shall slake their thirst on treasure and grow drunk with wealth!." and the romantic male lead boasts "a strong chin, as solid as if he had been hewed from rock," and the beaches are "as white as a fair maiden's breasts," and many other sentences that make me want to roll over wearily and say, "Argh."
Yet I must confess that a third of the way into our tale, when brave Anne climbs the maintop gallant mast for the first time, spots a ship upon the horizon and shouts "Sail ho!," spurring her pirate mates to battle, even my half-annoyed heart raced a bit. It was then that I began to understand and accept this novel. It's a pirate story, for heaven's sake. There may be no Proustian lyricism here, but Farley does deliver plenty of glittering booty and growling seadogs and shipdecks awash with blood, and that's what pirate stories are for. To ask more of the genre is to get all fussy for no reason. As Anne herself muses, "Ahh, I am not some philosopher king, given to spending his time remarking and reflecting on the metaphysical and the mysterious; I am but a mariner and I will leave such introspections to more erudite folk."
Of course, most of us are not wild mariners, but merely dutiful modern desk-sailors, who might find ourselves well served by such a salty biscuit of escapism as this. As for Farley himself, he is a senior editor at Time magazine and a Harvard graduate -- most erudite folk, indeed. I can't imagine it was anything but fun for this serious man to disappear for a while into the sun-kissed, reckless skin of Anne Bonny. By my troth, I daresay he enjoyed every minute of it. *
Elizabeth Gilbert's new book, "Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia," will be published in February.