A fictionalized, satirical memoir presents the life of a confidence man in 18th-century America.
George Sperryhawke is the son of a wayward father, a domestic who moved from England to the New World and luxuriated in drink while piling up insurmountable debt. He leaves home in his teens and finds dreary work in a candle factory, but he improves his lot when he wins the favor of Mrs. Esther Higginbottom, an older woman as gullible as she is wealthy. She finances his college education under the impression that he will eventually become an educated man of God, but George is prone to find trouble. He impregnates a young girl, Harriet, whom he mistakenly believes hails from a family of means but turns out to be a penniless servant. He flees and boards a ship destined for the Indies, and as a result of equally remarkable luck and artifice, he talks his way onto a ship as its new chaplain. When Capt. Dobbin falls deathly ill, he entrusts the purchase of 15 tons of English tea to the young reprobate. Inexperienced in the tea trade, George buys Dutch tea instead at a bargain, avoiding the considerable duty owed to the Crown. That maneuver imperils the ship and its crew, however, because the importation of unstamped Dutch tea amounts to smuggling. The memoir is written in the first person from George’s perspective—he proves a tantalizingly unreliable narrator, incapable of resisting the lure of self-aggrandizing hyperbole. He claims to have negotiated the Louisiana Purchase for Thomas Jefferson and to have coaxed more than 1,000 women into sexual dalliances. Debut author Smith reliably captures the vernacular of the time, as well as George’s pleasantly comical amalgam of frivolity and melodrama. Also, the plot is energetically paced; George’s life is almost unfathomably eventful. There isn’t much to the story beyond its comedic companionableness. George is clever but astonishingly amoral, and his lack of a conscience ultimately renders him a shallow protagonist.
An often funny but meandering tale with a shameless narrator.