Thursday, November 25, 2010

A drunken Irishman and a clueless English man walk into the jungle…

One of my favorite adventure novels is Shout at the Devil, by Wilbur Smith (first published in 1968). An aging and alcoholic Irish-American expatriate named Flynn Patrick O’Flynn lives in British East Africa in the years just before World War I, making his living by crossing over into German-controlled territory and poaching elephant ivory.

To give his latest plan a vague sense of legitimacy, he cons a none-to-bright Englishman named Sebastian Oldsmith into joining up with him. The idea is to “annex” a small island for the British Empire, then use that as a base to hunt elephants.

It’s a dumb plan, but Flynn doesn’t always think things out either. Soon, he’s wounded and most of his men are dead after the local German commissioner, the obese and sadistic Herman Fleischer, attacks his camp. And it’s suddenly up to Sebastian to get Flynn and the surviving men out alive.

To everyone’s surprise, including Sebastian’s, he turns out to be quick-thinking when things get dangerous. But this is the sort of story in which one thing leads to another. There’s a whole series of edge-of-your-seat adventures—all described with gusto and humor by the author—before the two protagonists get back to Flynn’s home. They outrun the Germans in a boat race downriver to the ocean, where they are sunk by a German warship and left adrift on a small raft. Flynn’s wound becomes infected and Sebastian has to perform some surgery with a hunting knife. Food and water run low. And so on and so on.

Once safe at home, Sebastian wastes no time in falling in love with Flynn’s beautiful daughter Rosa. A few adventures later, though, and the book takes an abrupt and tragic turn as war breaks out. Fleischer, now able to cross the border, attacks Flynn’s home and… well, I did mention there’s tragedy involved, right?

It’s amazing how well Smith manages to pull off this sudden shift in atmosphere. What was a fairly light-hearted adventure suddenly becomes a much darker tale of revenge, but the action and sense of adventure continue apace. The humor never entirely disappears, either, though it pops up less often. The shift might have made the book seem unsatisfying or thematically schizophrenic, but instead it all still hangs together into a single coherent story. It may all be a matter of pacing—the action sequences follow one another so quickly and effectively that everything else is just sort of carried along with them. When the finale arrives—involving an attempt to sneak a bomb aboard a damaged German battleship—the reader finds himself on the edge of his seat.

Flynn and Sebastian are great characters, an unlikely pair of allies who work well together despite themselves. Flynn is a perpetually drunken rogue, but you find yourself liking him anyways. Sebastian is in over his head most of the time, but he has an innate sense of decency and loyalty that works as a balance to Flynn’s excesses. I don’t think either of them could hold up as a novel’s protagonist by themselves, but together they make an effective composite hero.

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