A study of skullduggery and heroism, vainglory and stiff-upper lips, the unbelievable odyssey that is David Gann’s latest nonfiction work The Wager also manages to tear at the evils of empire, 18th century edition. That very direct subtitle makes clear the book won’t be a mystery: British vessels set sail hoping to bag a Spanish galleon loaded with treasure, all part of the now forgotten War of Jenkins’ Ear, endeavoring to sail around Cape Horn, a passage of unimaginable waves and wind, only to lead to…well, you just read the subtitle. But as a study of human will tested to its utmost, and beyond (eventually there’s even some cannibalism of corpses), The Wager (the all-too-perfect name of the ship that wrecks) fascinates. Gann (Killers of the Flower Moon) even gets to vividly paint a portrait of a roaring sea battle along the way.
To be honest, it’s a pretty critic-proof book. A page-turner thanks to the amazing twists and turns the ever smaller crew of the Wager suffers (passages about typhus and scurvy are particularly affecting), what’s most striking is how much Grann keeps writerly moves out of the way. Crucially, he’s an ace historian, digging through volumes of firsthand accounts of 1740-1746, synthesizing generally self-interested tales effectively. Central to that is an account written based on one of the perilous journey’s few logbooks, that of gunner John Bulkeley, devout Christian, experienced seaman, natural leader, reluctant mutineer. Alas, when those that survived the ordeal made it back to England, they were welcomed by the age of Grub Street, when “the loosening of government censorship and wider literacy” meant an insatiable appetite for what would not yet be called yellow journalism for several more centuries.
Care to read the rest then do so at the California Review of Books.