16 April 2006

The bookman lives up to his promise

Just over a month ago Jim Putnam wrote about a novel, The Bookman's Promise[1] by John Dunning and, more specifically, about "Ruffian Dick" – the Victorian orientalist Richard F Burton, whose writings are central to the plot. I made a note to read it, and the next time I was in bookshops looked for it without success. After a week or so I tried to order it; again, without success. For some reason, Dunning has not crossed the Atlantic – which is a pity, because he deserves to where others have made it on considerably less merit. So, it was only last week that I finally got my copy; then it had to take its place in the queue of other books awaiting attention. Last night, though, I finally read it.
In a number of ways, this book invites comparison with The da Vinci Code[2]. There is the same use of a specialist profession and its particular knowledge (Dunning's protagonist is, like Dunning himself, a rare books dealer). There is a historical mystery (did Burton travel through the USA's southern states, immediately prior to the Civil War?) with hints of conspiracy (was he spying for a British government intent on fomenting conflict?), whose resolution entangles a contemporary thriller puzzle storyline with conspiracy elements of its own. There is a love interest subplot between two strong characters, a dash of betrayal, and innocent victims fall along the way.
But: The Bookman's Promise is an infinitely better book than The da Vinci Code.
First and foremost, it's infinitely better written. Brown's book contains interesting fictions which could be developed, but then survives purely on the on the reader's willingness to suspend disbelief, be intrigued, and resist the urge to laugh. Dunning, on the other hand, holds a reader by his ability to tell a story well. Incidents in Brown's narrative are episodic pyrotechnics, with the story there only as a scaffold between them; in Dunning's they are embedded as a part and parcel of the evolving story itself.
Then there are the characters who populate the book. Brown's characters are two dimensional cardboard cutouts with only just as much depth as is required to carry the events; they are not real. Dunning's characters, by contrast are rounded and alive; you have to care about them. Most of them are good, warm hearted people (though they have their share of failings), who care about one another; there are a couple of out and out villains, but for the most part the baddies are just fallible human beings with back stories built on feet of clay – even the central act of betrayal is a sordid accident bitterly regretted rather than a deliberate act.
I finished The da Vinci Code despite an urge to bail out at the end of every chapter, resisting a constant tendency to fall asleep; The Bookman's Promise drew me on through, constantly absorbed, from the first page to the last. This is despite the fact that I have a passing interest in some of the ideas in Brown's book but none whatsoever in the setting of Dunning's. That says a great deal, and it seems a travesty that Dunning should be comparatively little known while Brown has hit megastar status.
To Britons, Burton is naturally more familiar than to Americans – he is part of our disreputable mythology in something of the same way, perhaps, as the Donners or Daniel Boone are of theirs. Perhaps that is one reason why he doesn't interest me as he does Jim and the characters in The Bookman's Promise. As a child or adolescent I read Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Mecca, Goa and the Blue Mountains, his translations of The Arabian Nights, The Perfumed Garden and Kama Sutra ... as a student, The Book of the Sword and Fawn Brodie's biography When the Devil Drives ... but, like most Britons, I am vaguely embarrassed by the presence of Burton (and his times) in my history. One of the things I realised during the reading of this book is that he fits right into the younger and more expansionist psychology of the US in a way that his type no longer can for post colonial Europeans. Reading this book, I didn't like him any better (even less, if anything) – and yet, I found myself as interested as the characters themselves in the possibility of his journey through the US south.
Nor do I have even the faintest glimmer of interest in the rare books business. I love books, but it is the content that I love not the package: I actively prefer a paperback to a hardback. I do understand collecting things, though I don't do it myself nowadays (I collected the usual stamps, bird eggs, etc, as a child); but I can't imagine how, having gotten to care enough about something to collect it, I could then sell it on again as a way of making a living. Nevertheless, I feel Dunning's (and Janeway's) love of this trade seeping out of the pages and through my skin.
I'm left with the inescapable feeling that Dunning loves both the human race and what he does; that's a wonderful combination, rarer and more precious even than a Burton first edition. Janeway ends the book disappointed in his fidelity to his own promise, but Dunning lives up to his for me.

[1] Dunning, J., The bookman's promise : a Cliff Janeway novel. 2004, New York: Scribner.
[2] Brown, D., The Da Vinci code. 2003, New York: Doubleday.

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