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San Francisco Chronicle: "Treasure Island!!!" is unstoppably funny."

Date: Jan 22 2012

Treasure Island!!! By Sara Levine (Europa / Tonga; 172 pages; $15) San Francisco Chronicle January 22, 2012 04:00 AM

Sunday, January 22, 2012

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At first look, "Treasure Island!!!" is a very funny novel. Let's start with those exclamation points, just the sort of emphasis we texters and tweeters apply to any banal statement or idea. This, unfortunately for us, is English now, a shorthand we have assigned ourselves, which is its own tragedy, even if this book does get us ROTFL.

In Sara Levine's novel, an unnamed 25-year-old woman narrates her story in a tone that is effortlessly witty and painfully disrespectful as she explains how she stumbled into Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island," a library book her sister had asked her to return. (She doesn't.) She is galvanized by its adventure: "I, a person unable to decide what to do with my broken mini-blinds, let alone with the rest of my life, lay on my bed, while in the book's open air, people chased -holes out of pubs and trampled blind beggars with their horses."

Never mind that her nearest encounter with a sea-faring vessel was the boat in Disneyland's "It's a Small World;" she decides to conduct her purposeless life according to the book's qualities - Boldness! Resolution! Independence! Horn-blowing! - and she applies these in the most unorthodox fashion. Which is to say, she adapts them any damn way she pleases.

Her best friend and boyfriend refuse to indulge her, which makes "talking to them ... about as interesting as talking to a couple of Tic Tacs." She resents her boss, a fearsome woman who runs a pet library - where hamsters, bunnies, goldfish and llamas can be checked out (no one has ever picked the llama) - for asking her to stop reading and perform her duties. Our narrator's tenacity is admirable. With a teenager's cynical devotion to her own point of view, she confides in us easily, assuming at least our sympathy, if not our permission.

In her piratical obsession, she has bought a parrot - "larger and more alive than I had expected" - and is forced to care for him when her boss fires her. She hopes to teach the parrot to say "Steer the boat, girlfriend," to inspire her, but he's devoted to TV and quotes prodigiously from commercials. "It's big, it's hot, it's back!" he cries, and the words "Fall blowout carpet sale!" have never been so funny.

It is when she moves back in with her parents that "Treasure Island!!!" transcends its constant comedy for a crackling satire of our hapless society. Have we become a nation of no-accounts and self-absorbed, immature weaklings? Are we so enabled by surfeit goods and indulgent parents that we've lost ambition and responsibility? Her mother says, "Whatever you want to do, that's what you should do, darling. We never expected anything from you or [your sister]." And the narrator adds, "True, in that they certainly never helped me to do anything."

She is outraged when her mother suggests that her scribbled note cards are a diary. "I would never stoop so low as to measure my life by the pulse of domestic time!" she tells us, insensible of Proust. "Where's the mastery in it?" Her chastened mother says, "I thought you liked candor," and the narrator answers, "I like my candor. There's a big fat difference."

The pet library is the only element of the novel that seems too ridiculous. Levine is best and beautiful as a subtle satirist, and this one exaggeration accounts for the book's slow start. The opening 40 pages or so - a fairly sizable portion of a 172-page book - seem restless. But wait, wait. Once Levine allows the world to unfurl, and unhinge, "Treasure Island!!!" is unstoppably funny and not a little frightening. The real comedy and satire are in the breathless self-delusion this narrator cannot help but reveal, how nimbly she blames others for her own ghastly errors, how deftly she upends a situation so that she can be irritated with her boyfriend because he hasn't gotten around to cleaning up her coffee stains.

Her stunning lack of accountability increasingly becomes a prison within her parents' house, and her paranoia mounts - why not, she has nothing else to do! - until the final chapters charge forth with shocking and hilarious audacity.

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