Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Master of Monterey, by Lawrence Coates (2003)

Not long ago, I was lamenting to a fellow local history buff the paucity of factually-accurate early-California historical novels. Good writing set in the 20th-century isn't hard to find (e.g. the ninety-year-old Oil!, by Upton Sinclair is still relevant today). However, novels set in the pre-U.S. period have tended toward overly romantic views of Spanish California.

"Have you read The Master of Monterey?", my acquaintance asked. Admitting that I had never heard of the 2003 novel by Lawrence Coates, I was happy to find it at my local public library, and am now happy to have read it. What fun!

The postmodern historical fiction of American writers including John Barth and Thomas Pynchon breathed new life and literary quality into the genre, and Coates' novel falls squarely into that tradition. One of the more absurd episodes in California history provides a perfect setting for an irreverent and humorous tale of frustrated idealism, oddball personalities and competing agendas.

In 1842 Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones sailed into Monterey, capital of Mexican Alta California. Mistakenly believing the United States and Mexico to be at war, Jones captured the defenseless port and ran up the stars and stripes. One day later, another U.S. ship arrived with dispatches proving that no state of war existed. Jones quietly took the flag back down and departed. Monterey returned to its somnambulant state for another four years, until it was once again seized without a struggle in the opening days of the Mexican-American War. Jones' navy career continued after this embarrassing fiasco, but he was never again trusted with a position of such responsibility.

Coates signals early-on his intention to treat the historical events as merely a jumping-off point into larger themes. The name of Jones' flagship is changed from United States to National Intention. A fictionalized unrequited love affair allows Jones to project a garbled idealism onto his mission, and so on. A postmodern approach also dictates healthy doses of absurdist humor, and Coates does not disappoint.

A Barthian touch is the idea that historical narrative not only influences later readers' understanding of events but, if written concurrently, may actually direct the course of those events. Coates creates two characters who record this historical episode, with very different ideas about its story line. The two gradually and independently conceive the notion that their writing has the power to influence the future course of events.

One writer is a teenage aspiring poet named William Waxdeck (with a wink, Coates introduces Waxdeck as "a fifteen-year-old who could trace his ancestry to the Pyncheons of Salem, Massachusetts") who Jones orders "to compose an epic poem in heroic couplets on the theme of a ship carrying out the intentions of a great nation to spread freedom to the very logical ends of the continent". Waxdeck, whose classical education taught him how these stories are supposed to go, proceeds at first with enthusiasm. As the adventure unfolds, however, he becomes less and less sure where it should end up.

The other writer is Jones' ex-slave steward Hannibal who, while creating fair copies of the chronically-seasick poet's scribbled pages, sees and doesn't like where this story is heading. Hannibal begins to insert subversive ideas into Waxdeck's narrative, while also starting his own prose narrative of a quest to find in California a haven of freedom and equality. Neither narrative matches up with reality, of course, and other characters attempt to impose their own visions on the course of events.

Jones himself is filled with self-doubts, growing increasingly conflicted and confused about his direction and purpose. He begins to depend on each daily dose of poetry for guidance in setting the day's agenda, and becomes ever more confused as the two narrators and others all compete to be masters of their own fates - perhaps even Master of Monterey.  

The standard five criteria don't really yield an accurate evaluation of this very enjoyable novel, but for what it's worth:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. Although the main events were familiar, this retelling brought up new questions and avenues to be researched.
Score = 4
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes, just barely. History is used mainly as metaphor, and evidentiary detail is lacking. Still, there are events in the novel that actually happened, and I found no conflicts with verifiable history. The geography and topology of old Monterey are accurate.
Score = 3
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes and No. Coates lets readers know early on that the novel's purpose is not to tell "what really happened". Indeed, one of the tenets of postmodern historical fiction is that attempts to present fiction as "elaborated" and/or "revealed" truth are inherently dishonest. Rather than aiming to induce in readers a "willing suspension of disbelief", Coates leaves the documented history in its natural sketchy state and uses it only to serve broader novelistic aims.

A couple of odd, unnecessary and seemingly incorrect California place names are included. At one point, a group of locals ride off into the "San Gabriel Mountains". At another point, reference is made to an Ohlone rancheria called "Temecula". Neither of those real places is anywhere near Monterey.
Score = 2
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
No. Again, Coates is not trying for accurate characterization. A number of historical characters appear in the novel, but in highly fictionalized forms intended to convey some philosophical point of view, or to illustrate some particular aspect of the social realities existing in that time and place.

The reader may recognize other historical names in addition to Jones, but in heavy disguise. The fictional "Don Ignacio Castro" represents the California landed gentry - the rancheros, and the Castro family was indeed prominent in the Monterey area. The shadowy character of "Mr Lurkin" is an even-more fictionalized version of Thomas O. Larkin, an American merchant who, shortly after the events of 1842, was appointed the first and only U.S. consul to Alta California.
Score = 3
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
No. Plausibility is not one of the goals in postmodern historical fiction, so this criterion has limited relevance to an evaluation of this enjoyable novel. The follies and foibles of the very-human characters were, however, all too plausible.
Score = 3

P.S. After complaining about the dearth of local history novels, I must give a shout-out to S. L. Hawke, whose historical mystery Ghosts in the Gulch (2014) is set in 1860s Santa Cruz County.

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