During my misspent youth in London writing a novel that was later hailed by critics as “unreadable,” I lived near Robert Louis Stevenson’s house. Being a Stevenson fan, I would go out of my way every day to walk up to the house and fist-bump it. The current owner didn’t see eye to eye with me on this, and would whisk open the curtains to give me a cold stare — the British equivalent of coming outside and setting me on fire. But such was my admiration for the author of “Treasure Island” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” that I persisted. And so, when I learned that Oregon writer Brian Doyle had created Stevenson’s “lost novel,” I gave a huzzah followed by a skeptical harrumph. Huzzah because Doyle is great; harrumph because if a writer is going to put on Stevenson’s voice, he’d better, as the poets say, “bring it.”
Reader, Doyle has brought it. “The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World” is a triumph.
But first, some background: Aged 29, ink-stained and impecunious, Stevenson rented a garret at the top of a boardinghouse in San Francisco from December 1879 to April 1880. Doyle writes in his preface: “Tall, thin, poor, cheerful, young . . . and hopelessly in love with Miss Frances Matilda Vandegrift Osbourne” — a mother entangled in a divorce — “Stevenson spent his days roaming the sprawling legendary city by the bay, spending miserly sums on food and half a bottle of wine per night, and writing furiously to try to make enough money to support the family he would instantly have when married.” He also kicked around an idea for a novel, “Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World,” but, as Doyle writes, no evidence of his manuscript or John Carson has ever emerged.
From this truthful starting point, Doyle imagines the book Stevenson might have written: a glorious, swashbuckling tale that celebrates love, friendship and the sheer delight of being alive. At the heart of “Adventures” are the life stories of John Carson, the sailor husband of Stevenson’s landlady, told as the “fire is ticking low” in a house on a hill that creaks like a ship in the wind. Carson’s adventures whirl around the world: from the flower-strewn jungles of Sarawak, where Carson hunts pirates who have kidnapped his young assistant; to the bloody fields of Gettysburg, where Carson rescues an army priest, raving and mad after his “boys” are shot down; to the barren famine of Ireland, where Carson meets a silent girl who takes his heart.
Woven through Carson’s stories (told as payment for Stevenson shucking oysters) are those of Mrs. Mary Carson: her survival as a stowaway in the belly of a ship, her near death in a freezing Canadian winter, and her rescue by a bear hunter and a saint. As the narrative progresses, we follow the Carsons’ stories as they twine ever closer together.
Doyle casts John Carson as Stevenson’s literary inspiration, not only in the subject of his adventures (with cameos from the characters who became Long John and Mr. Hyde) but in substance, with the writer learning from the old sailor’s narrative talent. “The subtle pleasure of a story paused in full flow,” Doyle writes at one point, noting “the delicious tension of waiting.” In these intervals, Stevenson roams “the towered salty city itself, from wharves to hill-top thickets and back.” His reminiscences include a song of praise to San Francisco, “a city shaped like the dreams of its residents” where “the air is filled with the spice of eucalyptus and madrone, sifted here and there with tendrils of lime and lemon; behind us the glittering bay, ahead the prospect of a glimpse of mother sea.”
This is all conveyed in Doyle’s silver-polished prose that does justice to Stevenson while celebrating the story as a literary art. Doyle rejects, too, the recent trend of equating seriousness of purpose with misery of subject: “Do we require pain in a narrative, for it to be substantial?” he asks. “Do we need to dwell at length in mud, so that cleansing is more enjoyable?” In contrast, “Adventures” is suffused with joy for the simple, precious things of life: true love, loyal friends, good food and conversation — celebrations made more poignant by the 60-year-old Doyle’s recent diagnosis of brain cancer. May this novel cheer its author as it uplifts us, because “Adventures” is a tonic for our bitter times. I found myself shouting “Bravo!” at the end of every chapter — which made it awkward to read in cafes. But I didn’t care.
James McNamara has contributed to the New York Times Book Review, Times Literary Supplement and Australian Book Review.
By Brian Doyle
Thomas Dunne. 229 pp. $25.99