Ancient myths, sweet revenge, and postmodern love top mid-February’s new books.
REVENGE OF THE PEQUOTS
By Kim Isaac Eisler, Simon & Schuster, $25
One of the first, and bloodiest, wars between the Europeans who came to America and the people who were already there concluded in 1638 with the Treaty of Hartford. In this docu-ment, the government of Connecticut (there was, of course, no United States then) stipulated that the few surviving members of the Pequot tribe would be dispersed among other tribes, never to live in their homeland or use the name Pequot again. That seemed pretty conclusive — enough, anyway, for Herman Melville to name Ahab’s unlucky vessel Pequod, explaining that it “was the name of a celebrated tribe of … Indians, now extinct as the ancient Medes.”
Well, not so fast there, Herm. More than three and a half centuries later, the Pequots are having the last laugh. All the way to the bank.
Revenge of the Pequots is an elaborate and entertaining account of how a man named Skip Hayward used the law and some very slender Native American credentials to make a dying 200-acre Indian reservation into the extravagantly lucrative Foxwood Resort and Casino. This is probably the best account yet of the rise of Indian gambling, which is either the resurrection or the final indignity in the woeful saga of Native Americans. Hayward, who can trace his roots to the Mayflower, may be an improbable Indian warrior, but he is certainly an All-American dreamer, entrepreneur, hustler, and 21st-century variation of the old Horatio Alger myth. — G.M.
BEYOND THE EDGE OF THE SEA
By Mauricio Obregón, Random House, $21.95
Blood is chemically similar to seawater, which helps explain why the old stories of men and the sea pulse in our veins. Here, a former diplomat, scholar, and able seaman retells the epic voyages of
Jason, Odysseus, the great Muslim explorers, the Vikings, and the Polynesians.
This is no landlubber’s book. Before his death three years ago, the author retraces the routes by sail and by air. Like the heroes he writes about, Obregón is not afraid to sail into troubled waters, suffering shipwreck off Africa. He takes the sun’s measure with a 15th-century quadrant. He charts the winds and currents that drove ancient seafarers, the gods that helped or hindered them on their way, the ships that bore them and instruments that guided them. He shows that the old myths are, in fact, highly factual. Sailing times and landfalls closely match. He finds ruined shrines and ancient huts just where the poets said they were.
He argues, convincingly, that Homer must have lived on Cyprus and that Polynesians reached landfall on the Pacific Coast of South America. Scholars will rage and storm, but the armchair voyager will find it as irresistible as any siren’s song.
By Stephen White, Doubleday, $24.95
Kirsten Lord is in the witness protection program. She is not, however, some snitch hiding from the people she ratted out, but a former prosecutor who was threatened by someone who then had her husband killed right in front of her. When she is discovered in hiding and threatened once again, she finds an ally — a hit man with whom she shares nothing except the services of a government shrink. But Carl Luppo is a hitter with a heart, who makes it his business to protect Lord and her daughter from killers like himself.
Stephen White’s plot is clever enough, which is to be expected from the creator of the Alan Gregory mysteries. But what gives The Program its appeal is not the urgency of what will happen next, but the complexity of its characters. Once a “gorilla,” by his own description, Luppo is a man with laments and a certain tragic air — a deftly drawn bad guy trying, perhaps, to go good. — G.N.
By Julian Barnes, Knopf, $23
Julian Barnes writes what the critics sometimes call intelligent novels. That is, they require a close and intelligent reading (as though other novels do not). Scholars love them for their “nuance,” for that sense of self-referential irony that sticks quotation marks around words in a kind of knowing snigger: “‘Love’ — we know better, don’t we?”
Don’t let any of that fool you. Yes, there is a character like that, the insufferably arch Oliver, a failed artist who has managed to steal away the lovely Gillian from her husband, good old reliable Stuart. But Barnes is really a storyteller, interested in those very human traits that animate all relationships: trust, betrayal, obligation, and honesty.
And so this playful, witty, and finally sobering story of two men and a woman knotted hopelessly in a love triangle will delight any reader. Each character tells the story from his or her point of view, talking to the reader directly, but through the reader really addressing the other characters. It comes as no surprise that they are all perfectly capable on occasion of deceiving the reader, each other, even themselves.
But each is also capable of telling the terrible truth, which is that we are all bound to one another in something like love, etc. That’s without the quotation marks.