Second-novelist Coates (the award-winning Blossom Festival, not reviewed) returns with the tale of a confused ship and commodore waging an imaginary war on California.
The 1842 real-life attack on Monterey is here turned into farce. We join the hapless Commodore Jones as he and his trusty companion and ex-slave Hannibal acquire their ship, named for Jones’s lost love, Louisa Darling, and set about gathering a crew. These include Rafael Rafael, who has the Adamic gift of a third testicle; seaman extraordinaire Merry Jack Chase; and William Waxdeck, the epic poet to whom Jones assigns the task of recording their adventure in verse. In a story sometimes reminiscent of Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, at least in spirit, the ship is eventually assigned the task of taking California in a war that may or may not be happening. There need be only one shot on the Presidio to do it—and it’s a cannonball that rips through the wedding party of the beautiful Arcadia, who has been a virgin since she was three years old, has trained to be a nun, but has also learned that the way to be fruitful is not by touching oneself but by encountering the snakeman. Arcadia has secretly been longing for the American ship to interrupt her marriage, but will the commodore’s attack really just amount to a ship of fools? After all, isn’t Jones a little too preoccupied with the epic poet’s progress? And is there really a war anyway, and if so, are those who have just been attacked authorized to surrender? Coates’s prose pulls off this pseudo-history with a flavoring of magic realism: “When the Commodore told him to ready the ship for California, he was thirty-five, in the middle of some road or other, and he hadn’t looked in a mirror for more than twenty years.”
As Jones says, this land is adrift from history, and Coates brings it alive.