Piracy used to conjure up visions of rabid men roaming the dark seas, festooned with tattoos and covered in facial hair. Now it’s more likely to bring up images of overweight young men sitting in basements in front of glowing computer screens. From Blackbeard to Neckbeard, if you will. Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler throws the older, vicious idea of the roving corsair into the modern day in this strange look at teenage angst and the life of an outsider.
14-year-old Gwen is angry. Angry at her parents, angry at the world, and angry at her own dull life. Caught shoplifting in an attempt to relieve her boredom, she is sent to help out at a nursing home where she meets Errol, an elderly Navy vet who is suffering with Alzheimer’s. The two bond over obscure seafaring slang and soon decide to take to the San Francisco bay with a crew of rejects in an attempt to regain control over their lives. Although Gwen’s scheme feels like a fun romp to begin with, it isn’t long before things start to descend into violence, and there appears to be no going back. At the same time, Gwen’s father Phil is having a midlife crisis as he attempts to get his flagging media company some attention. He also thinks of himself as a rebel – although in a safe and commercially viable way. He’s sure his lame duck of an idea will be just the thing to reignite his career, and so he heads off to a big industry meetup with his new assistant in tow – via disastrous flights, ill-conceived affairs and painful networking events. But Gwen’s disappearance soon causes him to rethink his life.
Although most of his work is written for the teen market, this is certainly more of an adult novel. Phil’s sections have more in common with something like American Beauty than Pirates of the Caribbean as he struggles to come to terms with both the way his life is going, and the whereabouts of his daughter. What could be a silly and ridiculous concept is bolstered by unusual terms of phrase, a rich vein of irony and its darker edges. Gwen and her crew’s exploits on the sea are borderline psychotic – a more fantastical and palatable version of a school shooting, but just as disturbing.
Gwen and her swashbuckling colleagues are all outcasts in their own way, and Gwen and Errol’s slightly disjointed friendship forms the real core of the book. Phil’s tale of middle-class ennui may bookend it, but it’s Gwen’s angry and worrying railing against the world that both propels the novel and gives it heart. This is an unusual book that tries to buck expectations. It’s a family drama, a tale of childhood adventure, and a violent look at unrestrained adolescence – often all at the same time. Handler has a great way of writing, and even if the tone veers wildly it is frequently entertaining and always engaging.