History is littered with examples of people doing bad things in order to land rare and exquisite prizes. And so is this funny, quirky tale that plays pleasing what-if games with the past.
Dock Bass has a Jimmy Buffett soul: Canadian author Smith (All Hat, 2003) lets us know early on that Dock would rather fish, play cards, and drink beer than do anything else, including deal with his socially ambitious wife and make the fat living she now seems to require. When a mysterious letter comes from a lawyer down Gettysburg way, Dock is glad to get gone—and gladder still to find that he’s inherited a little farm from a relative he scarcely knew he had. There’s work to be done on the place, but enough little rewards turn up in odd corners to keep Dock at the task: glass-plate negatives that may contain images of Lincoln at Gettysburg to add to the single photograph known to exist, a first edition of Notes on the State of Virginia, manuscripts, old tools. And then he finds the big one. Enter lawyers, reporters, treasure hunters, fortune-sniffers, and assorted hangers-on, until Dock’s back to his former karma-pecked self: “For a man who had, just a month earlier, driven off into the sunset with the sole purpose of uncomplicating his life, Dock Bass had somehow succeeded in accomplishing just the opposite.” Some of the characters in Smith’s roller-coaster narrative verge on caricature, but others—like young, beautiful Amy Morris, an ambitious TV reporter—become nicely complicated as the story unfolds and shaggy dogs shed their fleas. Smith takes his leisure in crafting smart exchanges: “Anyone with a brain would have taken that step,” one of Dock’s pursuers mutters. “I suspect this fellow is the dimmest of bulbs. Violent types usually are.” But Dock is smarter than he seems: so we learn as Smith’s story meanders amiably toward its satisfying payoff.
Nicely done, and just the thing for the History Channel addict of the house.