At times one can’t help but wonder if this exercise is an out-of-control short story or a novella in need of an editor.
There are things you may not know about the life of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Kidnapped, Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He was a sickly man who died at the age of forty-four. He was something of a rebel, breaking with his parents for a time over his desire to become a writer. Before he was famous, Stevenson fell in love with Fanny Osbourne, an American woman ten years his senior who was married at the time. Osbourne and her two children lived in Oakland, California. Stevenson, ever the swashbuckling romantic, moved to a boarding house in San Francisco so he could be close to Osbourne while they both waited for her divorce from a philandering military man to become finalized. One contract would be nullified and another ratified for it was Stevenson’s intention to marry Fanny Osbourne the moment she was free to do so. This period of waiting lasted from December 1879 until April 1880 and provides the setting for Brian Doyle’s uneven yet charming account of those months: The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World.
Doyle’s title comes from an unproduced work that Stevenson made notes for but never wrote. It was one of the few stories that he didn’t produce during his five months in San Francisco, a period of furious production. A self-professed Stevenson nut, Doyle could not resist writing the book for his literary hero, an act of bravado that is almost doomed from the outset because Doyle is not only writing for Stevenson but as Stevenson. This is a faux memoir and Robert Louis Stevenson its narrator. To quell any clamors of audacity, Doyle makes clear in his introduction and afterword his deep and clear affection for his subject. This is a book written with a verbosity characteristic of a nineteenth century novel with Stevenson acting as his own Jim Hawkins, but the real challenge was figuring out who the devil was John Carson?
Doyle delights in discussing his inventions. John Carson has been lost to the obscurity of history, but his acquaintance with Stevenson is an undeniable fact. The famous author lived in a boarding house on Bush Street in San Francisco owned by a Mrs. Carson and her husband or brother-in-law, John Carson, but who he was to Stevenson that would inspire such a ponderous title is unknown. In place of this void, Doyle has created both a mentor and father figure. John Carson as created here is a man of the world, a former sailor who has travelled all oceans and known all manner of man. He is a fascinating man full of stories, and when he and Stevenson steal an hour in the parlor before Mrs. Carson serves her wondrous meals, he is willing to share a few. As recounted through Stevenson’s fictionalized admiration, there is little in this life that John Carson has put his mind to and not succeeded at, including being a storyteller. Unlike Stevenson’s real-life father, at least for a time, Carson values the telling of a tale and the time he spends with the neophyte author is something of a tutelage.
“…I began to wonder if he was not very consciously and deliberately choosing particular chapters of his life to tell, in order to tell me other things, perhaps – about the nature and power of stories, about how decisions not only reflect but create character, about how stories actually shape our lives…”
This is a book meant to celebrate storytelling with John Carson being its gravitational center. His adventures have that Gumpian quality of involving historical characters like Mark Twain, Alfred Wallace and Joseph Conrad, his openness being something of a philosophy that draws the curious and worldly to him. In his own stories and within the world of the narrative, John Carson is an eternal winner, a quality that endows a character with a certain level of tedium. Instead of anticipating his next appearance, his elucidations and pontifications grow tiresome. At times one can’t help but wonder if this exercise is an out-of-control short story or a novella in need of an editor.
In a strange way, little of that matters. An endearing force powers this book, and it is Doyle’s absolute love for Stevenson. As long as Stevenson’s masterpieces continue to populate syllabi, Doyle’s mission is to provide us with some sense of the man behind them: whimsical, driven and joyous. This may be a book best approached after reading the recommendations its author presents in the afterword. It has all the presumptuousness of the unasked for origin story but tempered with unabashed adoration for the tale it is telling.