The Master of Monterey
In 1842, false rumors of war between Mexico and the United States send zealous Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones of the U.S. Navy to the shores of California to win the territory for his country without firing a shot. Two days later he learns of his mistake and returns California “including those parts…that had never been seen and only existed in legend…to Mexican rule forever.” Such a setup is ready-made for farce, and the good ship National Intention cannot leave Monterey’s waters before fiestas, disguises, escapes, elopements, smuggling and the writers of pretentious, self-serving epics have all played their part.
Farce, however, is not the term I’d give to Coates’ smart and biting humor. Postmodern deconstructionism, maybe, as he takes on American self-righteous Manifest Destiny, its tendency to make “cardboard poppets” of its persona and to destroy “the most beautiful thing I had ever known.” Don’t expect the usual novel-aping-cinema-verte style in this quick read. Appropriately, the strange, fey characters seem to owe much to Latin American magical realism in the manner of Isabel Allende or Laura Esquivel. The commodore spends most of his two days of victory in the shamanic otherworld contained within an abandoned sweat lodge, searching for the pole that holds up the universe. His servant Hannibal Memory seeks escape in his people’s memories from the history of America in which his name is written down as slave. A blessed virgin stops the charge of a raging bull, and wads of epic-strewn parchment patch a sinking ship. All in all, this is a worthwhile, impressionistic, poetical lament for the parceling of paradise.