by Matthew Pearl
Did bookaneers really exist? A few years ago, I stumbled on a stray detail indicating that nineteenth-century publishers would hire agents to obtain valuable manuscripts that were fair game under the laws. Because of their shadowy place in history, I could not find much else about this group, but I was intrigued.
Building on this fragment of legal and publishing history, I tried imagining more fully these freelance literary bounty hunters — the history of their profession, what they might be called on to do, who they were, their backgrounds, how their lives would bring them to this unusual profession and how the profession would shape their personal lives. As far as historical fiction goes, it fit one of my ideals: a bit of gray-area history that cannot be explored very far without the help of fiction.
In this case, it seemed to me to call for informed speculation — what I’d refer to as research-based fiction — plus plenty of imagination. I applied the term bookaneer, one I had noticed had been used in a generic sense in the nineteenth century about literary piracy (the earliest use I find is in 1837 by poet Thomas Hood).
I cast a few bookaneers in supporting roles in an earlier novel, The Last Dickens, in which we encounter Pen’s mentor-lover, Kitten, and hear about Whiskey Bill.
I realized I wanted to see more of these and other bookaneers, and reader feedback on this front encouraged me. This led me to create Pen Davenport and his assistant Edgar C. Fergins, whom I decided to follow on a journey that would test them professionally and personally. I envisioned my fictional characters crossing paths with a number of prominent authors in history, but my compass pointed them to Stevenson. I had been fascinated by Stevenson’s time in Samoa.
It was intriguing and mysterious to his contemporaries to think of a European author at the far reaches of the known world, and I had to imagine it would have been an irresistible quest for my bookaneers — a kind of moment of destiny for both sides in the (still raging) battle over creative property.
We all know that much of our health is predetermined by our genes. We also know that we can generally improve our health if we eat right, exercise, and manage our stress. But how to do those things is a matter of great debate. Many well-meaning health programs are focused solely on weight loss or heart health, but what if there was a second genome, one that held the key to much of our overall health, but one that we could influence by very specific (and often surprising) lifestyle choices? Well, this second genome exists. It belongs to the bacteria that inhabit our gut and is vital to our overall well-being, in countless ways. The details of how these intestinal bacteria, known as the microbiota, are hard-wired into health and disease are starting to come to light and they are reshaping what it means to be human.
As scientists try to unravel the causes behind the prevalence of predominantly Western afflictions such as cancer, diabetes, allergies, asthma, autism, and inflammatory bowel diseases, it is becoming increasingly clear that the microbiota plays an important role in the development of each of these conditions and potentially many others. Our bacterial inhabitants touch all aspects of our biology in some way, directly or indirectly. But the modern world has changed the way we eat and how we live, and as a result, our intestinal microbiota is facing challenges that it has not experienced in the entirety of human evolution.
Our digestive system is much more than a collection of human cells that surround our last few meals—it also contains a dense colony of bacteria and other microorganisms. In fact, for every one human cell in our body, we house an additional ten bacterial cells that amount to a filibuster proof majority that legislates much of our biology. But before you start thinking of yourself as a human being with bacterial cells inside, it may be more accurate to consider yourself as a bacterial being with a human cell coating.
More than we ever expected, the gut microbiota sets the dial on our immune system. If the gut bacteria are healthy, it’s likely that the immune system is running well. Much is being learned about how the microbiota impacts our brains. The brain-gut axis impacts our well-being profoundly, far more than just letting us know when it’s time to eat. Gut bacteria can affect moods and behavior and may influence the progression of some neurological conditions.
In June 1970 Roth, Stein, and Fliegelman were living with several others in an apartment they rented on Amity Street in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn. Fliegelman had purchased dynamite in Vermont under an assumed name; he kept it in a garage they rented nearby. Forty years later, he shudders at the memory of that first bombing, at NYPD headquarters. “That first one was the scariest,” he recalls. “We knew if we did this, they would come after us.”
The “casers” identified a second-floor men’s room as an ideal spot to hide a bomb; it was just 125 feet from the police commissioner’s office. In the years to come, public bathrooms would become Weatherman’s favorite target. Stall doors allowed a measure of privacy, and many bathrooms could be locked from within. At the Amity Street apartment, Fliegelman built the bomb using his new design, about fifteen sticks of dynamite and a Westclox alarm clock purchased at a Radio Shack. The challenge was smuggling it into the building; they couldn’t risk having a backpack or briefcase searched. In the end, Fliegelman says, they hollowed out a thick law book and placed the bomb inside. Exactly who walked it through security and placed it above a ceiling tile in the bathroom has never been disclosed, but by Tuesday afternoon, June 10, the bomb was in place. “It wasn’t like they had metal detectors back then,” Fliegelman says. “There was just a guy at a desk, and we walked right past him.”
That night at 6:30 they telephoned in the warning. At that moment about 150 people were inside the building. Police operators got this kind of call routinely in 1970; it was ignored. Seventeen minutes later, at 6:47, the bomb exploded, its deep boom ringing through the narrow streets and alleys of Little Italy. The blast demolished two walls of the bathroom, blowing a hole in the floor twenty feet wide and forty feet long, destroying an office on one side, shattering dozens of windows and catapulting a cloud of soot and smoke into Centre Street; chunks of granite the size of cinder blocks crushed two cars below. Eight people were treated for injuries, none of them serious.
Forty years later Weatherman bombings can blur together, a string of dates and buildings. The attack on NYPD headquarters, however, was unprecedented; it left the department and the entire city government deeply shaken. “Our problem,” as one police commander put it, “is not the damage to the building or to our own morale. Our problem is the feeling that if the police cannot protect themselves, how can they protect anyone else?”
A small group of wildebeest stopped to watch us pass. They were headed to the larger herd. Their life was a process, a cycle, a never-ending circle. But wasn’t mine, too? All my life, I’d thought: If I can just make more money. If I can just birth this baby. If I can just get him through those scary first few months. If I can just make it through my first three weeks back at work. If I can just get my son potty trained. If I can just get a book contract. If I can just make it through the next eight nights sleeping alone in a canvas tent. If I can just. If I can just. If I can just.
Staring into the field of hooves pounding the earth, it was clear I had been denying myself this: The seasonal migrations of my life, the initiations, would never end. There would always be a proving ground to face. But acknowledging and embracing this was crucial to moving forward. It seemed a path to reduced anxiety, and I could surely use that. Letting go of the abstract idea that at some point my life would be more complete than it was that very moment felt like letting go of some sort of underlying constant fear I wasn’t aware I had. Standing in the center of the Serengeti, it was apparent: I would benefit from balancing my abstract human thoughts with the visceral, phenomena-centered viewpoint of the animals that lived there.
“Phenomenal” is defined as that which is amazing. It also means that which is directly observable to the senses. And what began as a tour of extraordinary sights had evolved into the story of how—in an abstract, digital world of overspecialization—I was becoming the expert witness of my own life. Each time I returned home—as I did for months at a time, in between two-week phenomena chases—I brought an expanded, global sense of wonder home to bear on my own backyard, alongside my family.
“They are going to cross,” my guide David said, nodding toward wildebeest that had lined the dirt road. Their pulse would quicken as they ventured out, but once they were back in the grass, it would slow. They’d move on, in every sense of the phrase.
David picked up speed in our safari vehicle, determined to reach camp before dark. I turned to watch the animals brave their crossing, but all I could see was a cloud of volcanic dust rising in our wake.
Elizabeth, New Jersey
April 17, 1975
It was just after midnight in birthing room 4C and Dr. Sherman, the mustached obstetrician presiding over the delivery, was sweating lightly into his cotton underwear, holding out his hands like a beggar, ready to receive the imminent cranium.
Without warning, the room was plunged into total darkness.
Though he had been delivering babies for more than thirty years now, Dr. Sherman was so taken aback by this complete loss of vision that he briefly considered, and then rejected, the possibility of his own death. Desperate to get his bearings, he wheeled around, trying to locate the sans serif glow of the emergency exit sign across the hall, but this too had gone dark.
“Doctor?” the nurse called next to him.
“The exit!” he hissed into the darkness.
All through the hospital, a wash of panic spread over staff and patients alike as life support machines failed and surgeons were left holding beating hearts in pitch-black operating theaters. None of the backup systems — the two generators in the basement, the giant, deep- cycle batteries outside the ICU, usually so reliable in blackouts such as this one — appeared to be working. It was a catastrophe in the making. Electricity had quite simply vanished.
In birthing room 4C, Dr. Sherman was jolted into action by Charlene, the expectant mother, who gave a single, visceral cry that let everyone know, in no uncertain terms, that the baby was still coming. Maybe the baby had already come, under shroud of darkness. Dr. Sherman instinctively reached down and, sure enough, felt the conical crown of the baby’s skull emerging from his mother’s vagina. He guided this invisible head with the tips of his ten fingers, pulling, gathering, turning so that the head and neck were once again square with the baby’s shoulders, which still lingered in Charlene’s birth canal. He did this pulling, gathering, turning without seeing, with only the memory infused in the synapses of his cortex, and his blindness was a fragile kind of sleep.
As he shepherded the child from its wet, coiled womb into a new kind of darkness, Dr. Sherman heard a distinct clicking sound. At first he thought the sound was coming from the birth canal, but then he located the clicking as coming from just behind him, over his right shoulder. Suddenly his vision was bathed in a syrupy yellow light. The father of the newborn, Kermin Radmanovic, who had earlier brought a transceiver radio and a telegraph key into the birthing room in order to announce his child’s arrival to the world, was waving a pocket flashlight wrapped in tinfoil at the space between his wife’s legs.
“He is okay?” asked Kermin. “He comes now?” His accent was vaguely Slavic, the fins of his words dipping their uvular tips into a smooth lake of water.
Everyone looked to where the beam of light had peeled back the darkness. There glistened the torpedo-like head of the child, covered in a white, waxen substance. The sight encouraged Dr. Sherman back into action. He first slipped his finger beneath the child’s chin, but when he felt no sign of the umbilical cord wrapped around the neck, he yelled, “Push!”
Excerpts and more are available at the links below!
Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
A hilarious, thoughtful, and in-depth exploration of the pleasures and perils of modern romance from one of this generation’s most popular and sharpest comedic voices
The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl
The bestselling author of The Dante Club takes us deep into a shadowy era in publishing ruled by a forgotten class of criminals
Jacksonland by Steve Inskeep
A thrilling narrative history of two men–President Andrew Jackson and Cherokee Chief John Ross–who led their respective nations at a crossroads of American history
The Good Gut by Justin and Erica Sonnenburg
A groundbreaking guide to the surprising source of good health
The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
Two sisters are suddenly sent from their home in Brooklyn to Barbados to live with their grandmother, in this stunning debut novel
Zero Zero Zero by Roberto Saviano
From the author of the #1 international bestseller Gomorrah comes a groundbreaking investigation of the international cocaine trade, as vicious as it is powerful, and its hidden role in the global economy
A Beautiful Question by Frank Wilczek
A mind-shifting book that braids the age-old quest for beauty and truth into a thrilling synthesis
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan
A deeply rendered self-portrait of a lifelong surfer by the acclaimed New Yorker writer
Undocumented by Dan-el Padilla Peralta
An undocumented immigrant’s journey from a New York City homeless shelter to the top of his Princeton class
The Man in the Monster by Martha Elliott
An astonishing portrait of a murderer and his complex relationship with a crusading journalist
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
A lonely young woman working in a boys’ prison outside Boston in the early 60s is pulled into a very strange crime, in a mordant, harrowing story of obsession and suspense, by one of the brightest new voices in fiction
The Road Not Taken by David Orr
A cultural “biography” of Robert Frost’s beloved poem, arguably the most popular piece of literature written by an American