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Waterworld

Lurking beneath this formulaic sea thriller is a thoughtful novel about narrative, genre, and literature.

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If someone -- a publicist for a major publishing house, say -- were to recommend a novel to you on the grounds that it had been hailed as a "marvelous thriller" of the "seafaring mystery" genre, what would you do? Unless you're a hard-core Clive Cussler fan, you'd probably do what I did with The Nautical Chart -- let it languish in dry dock, not in spite of but because of that front-cover rave. It's not that I don't like thrillers, or oceans, or ships: I do. But anyone who, like me, accompanied Cussler's indefatigably butch and resourceful hero Dirk Pitt to the bottom of the Atlantic to Raise the Titanic! 25 years ago probably came to this conclusion: However much fun this may be, the pleasures (and characters) this particular brand of thriller offers -- like those in any kind of genre novel -- are as predictable as the tides. If you've seen one hunt for the Titanic, or for Red October, or whatever, you've seen 'em all; and life's too short to squander precious reading time on paint-by-numbers writing when you could be reading high literature, right?

Maybe not. In this engrossing and often beautiful new novel, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, whose past works include such highly regarded fictions as The Club Dumas and The Seville Communion, has created a hybrid like many of the creatures you find in Homer's Odyssey (to which The Nautical Chart, a novel obsessed with other works about the sea, constantly alludes). Combining mass-market pacing with Melvillean soulfulness and an amplitude of detail, Pérez-Reverte forces you to rethink the issue of genre altogether -- not a bad thing just now, when the big chains have done so much to further separate, through their niche marketing, "literary" and "popular" writing in the minds of American readers . . . and writers.

There's no question that Pérez-Reverte's story takes you perilously close to the reefs of Cusslerland. The hero, Coy, a (what else?) glum loner, is a jazz-addicted merchant seaman who's been suspended as a result of a deadly navigational error; one day, while attending an auction of naval memorabilia, he falls for a (what else?) coolly beautiful blonde naval historian, Tánger Soto, who's bidding rather ferociously on an eighteenth-century nautical chart. The chart, we learn, holds the key to the location of the wreck of the Dei Gloria, an eighteenth-century brigantine with an intrigue-shrouded history -- and a cargo of uncut emeralds. As Coy becomes more besotted with the elusive Tánger, he becomes more deeply drawn into her plan to locate the wreck. There are obstacles, naturally, not least an unscrupulous, slickly ponytailed treasure hunter named Palermo and his "melancholy dwarf" henchman, Horacio Kiskoros.

But if the breathless race against the bad guys gives The Nautical Chart its giddy momentum, it's not what makes this book exceptional. As the swashbuckling narrative pounds on, the author keeps stopping to provide almost perversely languid flashbacks of Coy's former life as a merchant seaman: nuanced vignettes of the bar fights, the bored days at sea listening to CDs over and over, the storms and women and captains that Coy's survived. These memories, which gain texture from Coy's book-learned nostalgia for a time when sailoring was more than just getting "from point A to point B," give poignancy and emotional heft to a kind of tale that is typically concerned with neither. Such passages -- the "literary" bits -- are worthy of anything that Coy has read in his library of all-nautical books. To say nothing of what the other rather dolorous characters curl up with in their berths: "Dinesen, Lampedusa, Nabokov, Durrell," among many others, not to mention Proust.

The many allusions to other works of literature are part of a strategy designed to make us reconsider the notion of genre and think about the mechanics of narrative itself. "She should write novels," Coy thinks, listening to Tánger; "Your story wouldn't make a good B movie," Palermo sneers; "You tell the story very well," someone tells Coy. You'd have to go back to The Odyssey to find a gripping seafaring tale as self-consciously obsessed as this one is with how well it's being told. Pérez-Reverte needn't worry. "All books that involve the sea, from The Odyssey to the latest novel by Patrick O'Brian, are interconnected, like a library," Coy observes at one point. In The Nautical Chart, the author has crafted a work whose intentional, delicious, and old-fashioned blurring of the distinction between high literature and pop entertainment entitles it to a space of its own in that library -- and in yours.

The Nautical Chart
By Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Harcourt; 466 pages; $26.


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