Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel
“Everything you think you know about me is a lie.”
This bold claim is made by the author, one James Cook, born Feb. 23, 1860 — the Man Who Will Be Hook. It is an appropriately provocative statement as what follows is an extraordinary account that is so beautifully crafted it rings true. It is an epic, engaging and profound journey.
Taking a famous story and its characters and presenting them from a different perspective is a delicate and difficult task. More often than not, these attempts miss the mark. The exceptions (Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked,” Tom Mula’s “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol”) are few. We can joyously welcome to this short list John Leonard Pielmeier’s remarkably entertaining “Hook’s Tale: Being the Account of an Unjustly Villainized Pirate Written by Himself.”
While honoring J.M. Barrie’s source, “Peter Pan,” this is an entirely unique universe, told eloquently with candor and avoiding the pitfalls of preciousness. The book is both humorous and heart-breaking in turns and results in a portrait of the titular character that is memorably dimensional.
The novel explains how both the captain’s hook and Captain Hook came to be. The narrator begins with a detailed account of his emotionally dark and complicated childhood (shades of David Copperfield), a boy living in the shadow of an absent father and whose mother’s complicated history is gradually brought to light. An unfair expulsion from Eton sets his course, being drugged and impressed into naval service at 14 years old. Cook’s odyssey to Hook begins here.
At the center of the tale is the contrast of the man (Hook) and the child (Pan). It is a sharp account of the consequences of actions and the repercussions of retaliation:
My enemy. I refused to write his name, though it is a name well known, oft-illuminated by the gaudy lights of money-raking theatrical houses, where it is exploited for glamour and gain. Wherever his name is lauded mine is hissed. We are forever linked. The same audiences who pretend to save a supercilious fairy’s life by applause either laugh at me as a piratical clown or sneer at me as the Devil incarnate. Children cast the least popular child to play me in the nursery, while their professional counterparts hire histrionic overachievers to portray me. Heavens, what villainy! And all because of a lying tale told by a dour Scotsman that casts him as Hero and me as the Dastardly Villain who would stop at nothing to see him dead.
And yet, Hook makes clear that before they were enemies, they were friends as devoted as brothers. He knows that Peter is what he is: “I forgave him his childish behavior. He was, after all, my first and closest friend, the very best part of myself.”
Peter is both so innocent as to not understand what a pocket is and how it works, yet, like a child, capable of terrible cruelty. He is doomed to live in the “now.” This is a very different take on “Peter Pan,” finding the reality of what it means to never grow up: “In deifying youth, the Never-Archipelago frees us from the unknown — how marvelous! ‘You will never grow old’ promises delight; ‘You will never be different’ sounds like a punishment.”
What passes between James and Peter is the driving force of their story leading to Hook’s desire for revenge:
The remarkable thing about revenge is that it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it really is. There’s no false altruism involved, no lessons to be taught, no fortune to be gained, and more often than not, it has terrible consequences for those who seek it out. It’s a complete mystery to me why it is so attractive. Yet it is. I admit it. I was drawn to it as if it were a lovely lady (and it sometimes is).
This extraordinary understanding infuses Cook/Hook with a profundity that further shows how complex and yet accessible Pielmeier’s protagonist is. Hook, the narrator, is bravura and melancholy, struggle and hope.
In this world, there is birth and death and yet the laws of physics, geography, astronomy and even time itself are broken and twisted. “Yesterday” and “tomorrow” have different meanings. It is mind-bending and yet completely logical onto itself.
In the midst of this, many of the images, ideas and characters inhabiting Barrie’s world are threaded in Pielmeier’s distinctively rich tapestry. Here is the fairy dust (flying sand); shadows lost, found and stolen; and “second star to the right.” Tink the fairy and the Darling family take their places in new and innovative ways. A cast of buccaneers, headed by the kindly Smee (the boy’s first and true shipboard friend and the one who dubs him “Captain”), populate a world that is shared with the mermaid lagoon (signaling the boy’s burgeoning sexuality), wrestling bears and other marvels.
The young James’ great romance is Tiger Lily, beautiful and brave, noble from a noble tribe, whom he tries to describe but stops short with the simple yet telling “please picture the first love of your life. She was as beautiful as that.” Pielmeier lands gently on these divine truths.
Like any great pirate yarn, there is a great deal of adventure. A hidden treasure map leads to mutiny “with buckets of sea water mixed with oceans of blood.” There is a secret monster living in a Deep Well and a sea battle that ends with a Viking Burial.
The crocodile (named “Daisy” for Hook’s mother), well-known in the Peter Pan oeuvre, is so much more, her place in the story revealed in one of the most innovative and creative strokes in a novel full of imaginative flights.
There is a clever and delightful exchange between young James Cook and Peter when they first meet. It is a hilarious dialogue about baptism and the end of time. It is wide-eyed and innocent and yet pointed and shrewd. These charming moments are interspersed in a driving and thrilling narrative that weaves a mystery intertwining the entire company.
The book not only encompasses Barrie’s world but there are nods to history and literature, ranging from explorer James Cook, the murders in Whitechapel and Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart.” The references are subtle and enrich the chronicle as no shared incident is without value.
Pielmeier’s writing is visceral. A journey through an underground cave is thrilling and breathtaking in the tradition of great adventure novels. In addition, he has created individuals of great authenticity in a fantastical world. Almost no one is wholly good or bad, but shades of both, often alternating within the same beings.
The conclusion joins all of the pieces in a satisfying, cathartic and touching resolution.
While this marks Pielmeier’s debut novel, he is a gifted playwright, author of one of the most important and powerful plays of the last 40 years: “Agnes of God.” It is no surprise that he should prove equally successful in this genre. This will certainly be the first of many such works and let us hope for another visit to his unique vision of Neverland and its environs.
“Hook’s Tale” is a remarkable book, one that will sit proudly on the shelf occupied by the original “Peter Pan” itself. “I am stuck with the Truth,” writes Hook, “and the Truth is neither nice, clean, nor simple.” But, in Pielmeier’s hands Hook’s “Truth” is unflinching in its heart and inspiring in its humanity.
‘A Hook’s Tale’ is available online at Simon & Schuster, Barnes & Noble and Amazon. For more information on the author, visit www.johnpielmeier.com.