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Hooked by Hook

Hook’s Tale by John Leonard Pielmeier. Scribners.
Reviewed by Kevin T. McEneaney

If you have ever seen a theatrical production of James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904), you know that the character of Captain Hook is the most delicious, amusing, villainous role that an actor can find to tread on the planks of the stage. Now we have Hook’s odd, eccentric, and delightful autobiography to dazzle adults.

This is a novel of superior wit, and it’s no accident that Scribner has published this prequel-sequel to Peter Pan. Here, in the flesh, so to speak, is the voice of the most entertaining villain ever to appear on the stage. Even the publication date appears auspicious; if it had been published a year or so ago, it would have lacked the wider resonance of its vibrant, boasting, wheedling, self-exculpatory rationale.

This is not to imply children don’t identify with earnest and resourceful Peter against adult-like villains (now a staple of American cartoons), or that children can possibly comprehend that the magical character of Tinker Bell presents a witty riff on the character of Athena in Homer’s Odyssey. (Excellent children’s literature remains as entertaining for adults as for children.) Children do understand that Captain Hook’s cartoon maliciousness is completely ridiculous as well as a self-defeating approach to the complexity of life (adroit moral instruction here).

In Hook’s Tale Pielmeier delivers a comic narrative of epic, narcissistic apology, a theme that rides the rolling waves of our current political quandary. Hook boasts: “Everything you think you know about me is a lie.” Of his great-great grandfather, the notorious Captain James Cook (the historical villain of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Curse of Lono), Hook melodramatically sobs: “My sons would have grown to hate him. I only loved him all the more.” Every sentence of this novel glows with mischievous and delightful irony. This novel is a tour-de-force, tongue-in-cheek vacation from adult hypocrisy and insanity.

We enjoy the Dickensian arc of how a privileged young orphan was so abused by maleficent, cruel adults that the misunderstood “hero” became the most famous villain ever to sail into seas uncharted on any nautical map. We learn how the gentle Smee came by his nickname, the story of Hook’s harrowing education at Eton, the true story of the crocodile, the secrets of Peter Pan, Hook’s marriage proposal to Princess Tiger Lily, and how Hook evaluates Barrie’s play.

One of the glorious, gangly, ambitious millstones around the neck of contemporary fiction is the aspiration to create a work of art so serious that the result inevitably falters in tedium. Thankfully, this novel appears to have been composed in Neverland, and it supplies more pleasure than a gaggle of “great” novels. This is not a quest to imprint a legend on the mind of the reader—for we already have the legend. Here are the incomparable footnotes to the legend in the most tuneful voice that can be imagined. At $25 the book appears to be underpriced given its seductive humor and uproarious wit.