Edward Chupack,
(Thomas Dunne, 2008)

Treasure Island is the pirate story to begin and end all pirate stories, and Long John Silver is the pirate to begin and end all pirates. But in Robert Louis Stevenson's fabulous tale, we learn very little about the black-hearted rogue at the center of the story, which focuses instead on the heroic adventures of young Jim Hawkins.

Edward Chupack sets out to tell Silver's tale, and Silver is a swashbuckling novel that suits a pirate through and through.

Silver is one of literature's great villains. But Stevenson and Chupack both could tell you he was no one-dimensional character; he has layers, and depth, and fathoms of fascinating history captured in the grime under his nails and on every bloody scar.

"My heart?" Silver tells his foe during a shipboard duel. "It ain't as big as a mustard seed."

He strides through this story larger than life, a pirate who could make a Blackbeard or Morgan eat his own heart for breakfast. And there is, of course, treasure, the grail to Silver's lifelong quest. Every ship he ransacks and burns is merely a step on the map to deciphering the clues and finding it.

There are weaknesses here, one of which is Chupack's decision to cull a few key figures from Treasure Island but discard the meat of the story. Most of Silver takes place long before Silver and Hawkins crossed paths, but once they do, the plot takes off in entirely different directions. And, while I understand Chupack's desire to create something new, I also question the wisdom of basing a novel on a book you then choose to ignore.

Silver also suffers from some repetitiveness and awkward randomness in narration that, while it suits the fevered state in which Silver recounts his past, can be a little prickly to get through.

The story, though, is a thrilling adventure, with enough swordplay and gunnery to sate even the bloodiest thirst.

But the big success here is the language. There is poetry in Chupack's bold use of rough naval vernacular, as evidenced here on the first page of his tale:

This ain't paradise. This is the South Seas. Paradise is a gale that rocks the planks and tears the timbers and blows rime in your eyes. Paradise is a ruthless place. The rain hammers you into bits and casts you for your life. The lanyard runs through your hands and cleaves them. You laveer through the wind and gybe the sails until your arms cramp. You hang onto the gunwale so as not to end in the soundings. There ain't a bit of paradise down there in them soundings, but only Old Nick and his halters with their whips and brands and sloth-eyed children.

Tell me of a better life than climbing the cordage or riding the forefoot. Any snotty or tar worth his earring would go weatherly to oblivion rather than remain on land.

Pirates are too easily made into cartoons and caricatures, romantic heroes and sympathetic, misunderstood rogues. They weren't. Pirates cut a bloody swath through history, and Silver -- although a fictional device -- is perhaps the most dangerous of all. Chupack finally gives him his due.

review by
Tom Knapp

25 October 2008

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