By REBECCA BARRY
I’m partial, I confess, to a book with exclamation points in its title. It’s the excitement, the urgency, the exuberance they bring to a page. Imagine if other people had used them: “War and Peace!!!” “The Breast!!!” You’d expect a completely different book.
By Sara Levine
172 pp. Europa Editions. Paper, $15.
“Treasure Island!!!,” Sara Levine’s first novel, warrants its punctuation. Loyal in many ways to the language and the vigor of the original “Treasure Island” — Robert Louis Stevenson’s 19th-century adventure classic — it is a farcical romp. An unnamed 25-year-old woman working at a dreary job reads Stevenson and decides to adopt the “core values” she finds in the book:
(Having just reread the original “Treasure Island,” I’m pretty sure the horn-blowing refers to the way Jim Hawkins, finally captured by pirates, triumphantly tells Long John Silver and his band of mutineers he has been behind their downfall every step of the way.)
Levine is a wonderful storyteller with a vibrant voice. “Treasure Island!!!” is a rollicking tale, shameless, funny and intelligent. In her strong-willed protagonist, Levine has created a quintessential unreliable narrator, one who sees other people’s flaws perfectly and almost never her own, who feints and dodges nimbly around her deep feelings and questionable mental stability like a sailor dancing the hornpipe.
“I didn’t want a psychiatrist. . . . I wanted a sample,” she tells a doctor’s receptionist who won’t give her anti-anxiety pills. “Come on, I bet you have a closet full of starter packages. Please don’t pretend Dr. Klug is the only doctor in America not in the drug companies’ pocket!”
“ ‘I beg your pardon?’ the receptionist said, as if my pardon were an ugly damp thing and the only possession I had.
“ ‘You heard what I said’ (after I walked out).”
It is hard to change a life, and Levine accurately portrays what happens when someone stirs up the secrets and lies we are often content to live with. Her narrator is not necessarily a sympathetic character. She refuses to work, expects everyone else to pay for her and is callous toward others, although beneath her jaunty exterior there are glimpses of deep sadness and insecurity. Like her role model Jim Hawkins she values independence, but Hawkins is thrust into real danger — facing murderous drunk pirates who fight to kill — and his resolute independence saves him from death. Levine’s narrator’s antagonists are mostly people who love her: sweet if distracted parents, a slightly overweight but kind sister toward whom the main character is often unforgiving, a gentle boyfriend who is also a good kisser. As she adopts her core values, swashbuckling through her life and theirs, she wreaks so much havoc that after a while the reader almost wants to shout:
I would argue this is Levine’s point. What do we get from adventure stories? How do those values translate into a modern life? What does changing a life do to the people around us?
For most of us, the real dangers we face come from ourselves. By making her protagonist a young woman with a history of tearing through therapists, and placing her in an environment as far as you can get from buccaneering, sea voyaging and cutlasses, she brings into sharp relief the desperation of suburban life. She also challenges the values we learn from tales of battle and independence, and the way we can use these values to rationalize and glorify rash behavior, or to avoid what’s really brave.
As her sister says during an intervention near the book’s end, “Interdependent people are nicer. . . . Ever since you read the damn book, you’ve been gearing up to do something, right? Well, do something, sister! Take a risk! Go somewhere! Get a job! Try loving somebody — for real, I mean, not just house-playing!”
It’s a relevant statement, especially in an increasingly globalized culture. What do we lose when we pay more attention to our own Great Acts than to the people around us who support us? Maybe boldness, resolution and independence are overrated. Or maybe all by themselves, they are dubious values in the first place.
Rebecca Barry is the author of the novel “Later, at the Bar.”