The Master of Monterey
In one sense, I feel as though I’ve been preparing to write this book for a long time. I spent most of eight years aboard ship in various capacities, first in the Coast Guard and later in the Merchant Marine. I sailed as Quartermaster, Able Bodied Seaman, and Ship’s Officer, and I last sailed as Third Mate of the De Steiguer, an Oceanic Research vessel. Those years, standing watch on the bridge of a ship and listening to men spinning yarns, gave me insight into the kinds of imaginings that the shipboard characters in my book would have.
I’m also a native of California, and I grew up when the myth of a pastoral era was still taught as history in schools. When I went to college, I became fluent in Spanish and studied the literature of Latin America and Spain, as well as the Latino literature of the United States. I lived in Spain for two years, and I have done some freelance journalism in Mexico. This background formed the foundation of the research that went into the writing of The Master of Monterey
I first came across an account of Commodore Jones’s ill-fated conquest in Neal Harlow’s book California Conquered. The incident immediately struck me as perfect for a novel because of the focused space of time (three days) the great variety of interactions between different peoples that it gave rise to, and the potential it had for a comic exploration of classic American themes: the longing for utopia, the desire to escape from history and create for yourself a new identity, the conflict between the multiple versions of history criss-crossing our land. However, I also knew that I would need to do a lot of research into the era in order to bring it to life.
Much of my research was done in the reading room of the Bancroft Library, on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. There, one finds unpublished and untranslated memoirs from the Californios living in and around Monterey during the time of Jones’s takeover of Monterey. I was able to read these in Spanish, along with some manuscripts from French visitors to California such as La Pérouse. I also did readings of the many memoirs in English by military men, mountain men, and emigrants such as Thomas Larkin, James Ohio Pattie, and Joseph Revere. Many titles of books came from The Zamorano 80, a list of important books of Californiana put together by the Zamorano Club. I also visited the Monterey State Historical Park and walked the same route my characters would have taken. I remember standing at the gun battery mentioned at the end of fifth chapter, looking out over Monterey Bay and imagining a frigate at anchor, and suddenly thinking how funny it would be if the most threatening thing seen at the battery were cows chewing their cud.
The Master of Monterey is full of incidents that seem scarcely believable. But the episodes that might seem the most bizarre, like the bull and bear fight, hunting elk with lassos, septuagenarians marrying teenagers, or dances where men sit on horses between songs, are all based on memoirs from the period. My challenge was both to make them believable and to weave them into the focused space of my novel.
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