Daniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket, does write the occasional book for adults, in addition to his wildly popular books for younger readers. “We Are Pirates” is his first novel specifically for adults in a few years; however, it does read a bit like a YA novel. This is perhaps because the main character is a girl of fourteen, Gwen, who does, although, engage in adult behavior like pillaging on the high seas. Gwen is punished for shoplifting with a stint at a nursing home, where she becomes attached to an elderly gentleman with Alzheimer’s disease. The old man loves fiction about pirates and soon he and Gwen hatch a harebrained scheme to become pirates in the San Francisco Bay.
Unfortunately, Handler’s novel never seems to come together. It suffers from stifled dialogue, quite unusual for him, and moves awkwardly from teenage discontent to parental anxiety to sudden violence. While clearly influenced by the language and impulsive characters of pirate literature, “We Are Pirates” doesn’t achieve the thrill of some of those great books like the obscure, strange and wonderful “A High Wind in Jamaica.” Gwen and the old man’s journey is more one of confusion, whereby “being at sea” is a too-obvious metaphor for the drifting mind of the very young and the very old.
Handler recently got bad press for some ill-considered comments about race at the National Book Awards for which he quickly and rightly apologized. The comments were out of character for the author, who is not one to shy away from issues of race in the notoriously homogeneous arena of YA literature by white authors. For example, in “We Are Pirates,” a Haitian immigrant and aide at the nursing home is not allowed to use his real name at work. His boss makes him go by “Manny” because, “The residents find it easier to remember than anything Jamaican.” Referencing Friday in “Robinson Crusoe,” Manny at once fulfills the role of exotic “other” (he even has a parrot), while firmly demanding his place as an actualized human, not a mere stereotype. He is, in fact, the only character wise enough to walk away from their pilfered pirate ship, acknowledging, “What does my story have to do with it? It’s not a place for me here. I might now find one.” Handler attempts to tie these various characters together while linking them with the history of the pirate genre. He casts a wide net, thematically, which largely comes up empty. (Kelly Roark)
We Are Pirates
By Daniel Handler
Bloomsbury USA, 288 pages, $26