THERE ARE TIMES IN LIFE when one's hand moves, with the autonomous drive of a divining rod, toward a book that is the very thing needed at that precise moment. Needed for what? Needed, one learns within a page or two, to be The Source, the new idea, the clear, firm, blessedly wakening voice that can save you. This is the choice made by the unnamed female narrator of Treasure Island!!!, a novel that chases with a high-held lantern its unpunctuated namesake, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. The first novel by seasoned short-fiction writer Sara Levine, Treasure Island!!! offers a wild, funny, rambunctiously surprising look at what happens when the very thing needed to shake up a life does its job far too well.
When a trip to the library allows her searching grip to land on the spine of Treasure Island ("It's classic. The gold letters say so."), our girl is hopeless, hapless, and, at twenty-five, burrowing weakly into the sandy soil of postcollegiate living. Through TI, as the locals call the buccaneer-themed Las Vegas casino of the same name, the narrator discovers a way out of the doldrums and into a white-water adventure. Intrinsically, this isn't a bad impulse, self-diagnosing and then medicating through fiction. Nonetheless, we are soon reminded to use even the mildest drugs with caution. So many of us know, or have been, more prosaic versions of the narrator. Her George Saunders-esque job — as a assistant at a "pet library" (rent a hamster for the weekend!) run by the brittle and surprisingly fashionable Nancy — is a composite cartoon of all such absurd first jobs for English majors. The boyfriend, Lars, is an equally anemic toiler in the fields of commerce. (To quote Gang of Four, "To have ambition was my ambition.") Tech support. You know that guy. If this girl and that guy are in love, their love is not of the sweetest stripe. They trade the barbs of the disjointed. "Lars, would you know a great book if it hit you in the ass with its registration papers?" says the girl. "Piracy and the expansion of the nineteenth-century nation-state ... I'll talk for twenty minutes and then turn it over to you and Jimbo," says the boy. While the narrator stews over Lars's failure to connect over the book, he says, "Let's order two flans." Not exactly the kind of line a girl might hear from Stevenson's more thrilling pirate captain, Flint.
With or without flan, the narrator pushes the template of Treasure Island down the throats of everyone in her life, her sister and parents, her boss, her best friend, and the small band of characters she meets along her quest for adventure. They ask the central question: Why Treasure Island? "Isn't Treasure Island," the other voices in the novel cry, "a boy's book?" Not only is TI a boy's book, it is the boy's book. It is the ur-text for the boyish fantasy mind, much as Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie inflame the incipient imaginations of girls. TI is also the source material for the pirate iconography that has become so steadfast a part of our culture that a trip through the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World or, for purists, Disneyland, is on a par with visiting Mount Rushmore. Actually, it is more important than visiting Mount Rushmore. Come on, everybody sing! "Yo ho ho, it's a pirate's life for me!"
Levine's pairing of the ungirly, unsentimental narrator with an action narrative i...