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Have you heard about the lonesome loser? Or should I say, have you heard enough about the lonesome loser? It’s become a shlub’s paradise out there these days: Mr. Pathetic has invaded movie theaters in the booming-box office guise of Tom Cruise (Jerry Maguire) and Kevin Costner (Tin Cup), and he has sulked inside our televisions and scored hefty Nielsen ratings (Drew Carey, George Costanza). The proof is out there: America loves a lame-o, especially one who scrapes bottom, licks the dregs, and then has the balls (maleness being an essential attribute of the commercially viable loser) to buck the odds, and his own innate pitifulness, to swim to the surface of self-sanctuary.
And now, thanks to a young writer devoted to the scriptures of epic yarn-spinning, another worthy Lost Boy can be added to the list of lovable losers: Wilson Lander, the sooner-or-later hero of Robert Girardi’s contemporary take on swashbuckling adventure tales, The Pirate’s Daughter. Wilson is truly one sorry-ass sonofabitch; fortunately, his battle against despair is an irresistible read.
The thirtysomething Girardi (who has one other novel under his belt, 1995’s Madeleine’s Ghost) wastes little time easing the reader into the dreary world of the thirtysomething Wilson. When we first meet him, he’s living in an ethnically diverse coastal metropolis (a nameless blend of New York and Girardi’s current home, Washington, D.C.) and reluctantly filling his weekdays as an executive assistant to his highly motivated girlfriend, Andrea, a VP at a small brokerage firm. Andrea can’t understand Wilson’s depression and lack of motivation—not to mention his sheer discomfort at working directly under her.
She is not alone, however, in her failure to comprehend her boyfriend: The only aspect of his own sorry state that Wilson understands is “the Dread,” a constant cloud of darkness and loathing that follows him night and day. “He was not an irrational man,” Girardi writes, “but a tragic childhood had colored his adult life with a pervasive sense of dread. Dread was a way of life for Wilson Lander. He breathed it in as air, he wore dread as other men wear underpants and socks.” This tragic childhood—Wilson lost both parents before he was 10—never leaves Wilson’s thoughts for long, and it is this sad past that will serve as a veritable wellspring of emotional twists in the novel’s lengthy, brilliant finale.
Wilson’s only resource of confidence is his innate ability to gamble: Going into any wager—cards or craps, dogs or ponies—he knows he is going to win. Wilson is not cocky about this gift—he rarely finds occasion to gamble—but he is simply, and stoicially, sure. His father was a successful gambler as well, one good enough to support his family. The lone time his father’s luck ever waned was when he “perished in the famous wreck of the four forty-five, an overcrowded express train that derailed and plunged off the Trohog Bridge into the Potswahnamee River.” His colorful death would give half-birth to his son’s looming Dread (and when “less than a year later, his mother was crushed to death in a bizarre accident,” Wilson’s curse would become complete).
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As Girardi rounds out Wilson’s emotional liabilities, he slyly pulls off a pair of plot maneuvers, outrageous coincidences masked by the reality of Wilson’s psychological distress. After finding two ominous tarot cards face up on a city sidewalk, Wilson, nauseated about what the symbols might signify, heads to an occult shop for some answers. There he meets Susan “Cricket” Page, a world-weary, copper-haired beauty who lives for life on the high seas and little else; her discomfort with her present surroundings is an immediate turn-on to Wilson. Cricket’s interest in Wilson is initially lukewarm, yet when she finds out about his prowess at beating the odds, she is drawn to him.
At the same time that Wilson is getting seduced by Cricket, he stumbles upon the company of several young African men from the fictional country of Bupanda. The “Bupus” tell Wilson horrific stories of their war-ravaged home and the political infighting among the various factions dividing their people. After a night of heavy drinking, the Bupus take Wilson to some cockfights at a bunkhouse in the bowels of the city. After winning every fight he bets on, Wilson is forced to hand over the bulk of his winnings in order to save the lives of his Bupu friends. At the cockfights he also meets a well-dressed Portuguese man, who bet against Wilson (and lost $75,000 as a result). Girardi is subtly introducing characters the reader will remember but not necessarily expect to show up in the novel’s second half. This adept structuring only makes the series of surprises Girardi has planned that much more wickedly satisfying.
Cricket soon learns about a pair of crew positions on a millionaire businessman’s experimental yacht, the Compound Interest. The ship is in the midst of traveling around the world, and Cricket asks Wilson to leave everything behind, including Andrea, to travel with her. (“A sailor is a guy looking for a way out,” Cricket tells him.) Naturally, the Dread tells him no fucking way. But a new feeling has been growing in Wilson since he met Cricket, and this foreign strength tells him yes. For the next two years, it will seem like the biggest mistake Wilson Lander has ever made.
For some readers, the suspension of disbelief The Pirate’s Daughter requires may be too bulky an obstacle. When Cricket turns out to be different from what Wilson believes she is—the book is called The Pirate’s Daughter—and the action winds up in Bupanda, Girardi turns his eye to the grotesqueries of modern-day slavery, the bloodiness of civil warfare, and the very real existence of piracy (presented here as corporate in nature, the bad guys sporting as many laptops as eye patches and tattoos).
But while another writer might have spun the high-adventure format closer to parody-as-symbolism, Girardi stays true to his tale, never threatening the kind of irony rampant in contemporary lit. When the yacht, renamed the “Dread,” is overtaken by gun-toting, knife-wielding pirates, Wilson becomes the sea-faring scoundrels’ captive. Stuck in horrific limbo, Wilson is forced to watch thousands of slaves being sold to the world’s shadiest businessmen, the Bupus killing each other for no good reason, and Cricket falling further and further into the murderous world of her father. When he isn’t drinking his misery away and mournfully regretting every decision he’s ever made, Wilson plots an escape, knowing that the path to freedom goes through Cricket (whom Wilson may or may not love and vice versa).
Readers who don’t enjoy mixing their stark reality with sheer fantasy (think Terry Gilliam, John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut) might as well drop the book here, because the last 100 pages of The Pirate’s Daughter are a cinematic dream both violent and inspired (and awfully hard to describe without booting a few surprises): Wilson attempting to free the slaves, just barely being saved by loyal friends, gambling with his life for the freedom of Cricket. And despite all the improbable skullduggery, Girardi always makes sure his despondent Odysseus’ exploration of himself is what The Pirate’s Daughter is ultimately about.
Never is this priority clearer than when The Pirate’s Daughter arrives at its dramatic peak: Shackled in a dingy bamboo prison and mere minutes from being skinned alive by savages, Wilson, courtesy of a funky tribal elixir, has the out-of-body opportunity to visit the scenes of both his parents’ deaths. It’s a breathtaking moment, a one-two punch of past-meets-present that lifts this sprawling, unique novel like a gift to the gods of old-fashioned storytelling.CP