The Master of Monterey
Based on a bizarre but true episode in California history, The Master of Monterey depicts what happens after an American naval vessel mistakenly conquers the capitol of Mexican California. In 1842, when Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones of the United States Navy sails off to conquer California in his flagship, The National Intention, he brings with him a rogue’s gallery of characters, each with their own dreams of what the new land would mean to them. Hannibal Memory, the Commodore’s steward and a former slave, hopes to desert the ship and escape from American History. Captain Rafael, sent to sea after he was found sleeping with his sister when he was twelve, hopes to find true love. Jimmy Bush, an ordinary seaman, hopes to find the parents who had forgotten him in their haste to catch up with the advancing frontier.
The American force erupts into the slow social life of Monterey, the capitol of Mexican California, throwing the residents into confusion. The invasion interrupts a wedding between seventy-year-old Ignacio Castro and fourteen-year-old Arcadia Serrano, and gives Arcadia the perfect excuse to avoid her aged, would-be bridegroom. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the Commodore, his flagship has sprung a leak and is slowly beginning to sink. The storylines of the various characters advance and converge, with results both humorous and momentous. When Commodore Jones discovers that he had acted only on the basis of rumors of war, and that Mexico and the United States are in fact at peace, he finds himself with no option but to give Monterey back. This final act affects everyone.
War, smuggling, fiestas, disguises, escapes, elopements, and a good deal of farce may feed the comic energy of The Master of Monterey, yet the novel is also a serious exploration of classic American themes: the longing for utopia, the desire to escape from history and create a new identity, and the conflicts among multiple versions of history. In the end, the novel surveys and reveals the complicated truth behind our pastoral imaginings of America’s past with a comic, postmodern twist.
This is a lively tale, told with one part humor, one part adventure, and one part fact. The Commodore himself is a resurrection of Ahab: He ‘gazed at the line that divided sea from sky as though it would yawn open and display a new land ready for the shape of his desire.’
—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
Second-novelist Coates returns with the tale of a confused ship and commodore waging an imaginary war on California.
The 1842 real-life attack on Monterey is here turned into farce…. In a story sometimes reminiscent of Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, at least in spirit, the ship is eventually assigned the task of taking California in a war that may or may not be happening. Coates’s prose pulls of this pseudo-history with a flavoring of magical realism… [He] brings it alive.
California’s extravagant, irresponsible, tragic history is so often absurd that only a magical realist can tell it. Lawrence Coates’s deadpan farce joyfully captures the superb incompetence of everybody involved in the two-day conquest of Monterey by a United States Navy ship in 1842. Still, what I will remember longest of this endearing novel is its unspoken tenderness. It’s not a joke, in the end, but an elegy.
—Ursula K. Le Guin
As insightful and sympathetic as it is cutting and funny.
The 1842 real-life attack on Monterey is here turned into farce.... In a story sometimes reminiscent of Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, at least in spirit, the ship is eventually assigned the task of taking California in a war that may or may not be happening. Coates’s prose pulls of this pseudo-history with a flavoring of magical realism... [He] brings it alive.—Kirkus Reviews