Island, by Thomas Perry. Amazon Digital Services, 2011. $6.99 (Kindle edition).
From Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs to Nevil Shute’s Trustee from the Toolroom, many of the best books ever written have until recently been hard to find and therefore often expensive to purchase.
This was partly because of limited shelf space at the major bookstores and partly because of the costs associated with printing new editions. But thanks to recent advances in technology, many such books are easier to find and cheaper to buy than ever before.
One example is Thomas Perry’s Island, which was long out of print but is now back on the market in electronic form for just $6.99.
Island opens with Harry and Emma Erskine, two likable con artists on the run from Fat Jimmy, a gangster whose money they stole and whose henchmen are now hunting for them.
During the chase, Harry proves for the first time, but not the last, that he is relentlessly positive in the face of obstacles. For example, when Emma tells him their pursuers will be where they are in just an hour, Harry responds, “If everybody who wants us dead stays an hour behind us, that’s a pretty good life,” and adds, “We’re in terrific shape” (loc. 87).
Harry and Emma soon team up with Lord Carnarvon, a Carib Indian with an uncanny knowledge of the seas. Initially, all Harry and Emma care about when they first meet him is that he has a boat and is willing to sneak them out of the country in exchange for cash. Given what Harry finds on the boat, however, and given the moneymaking idea this discovery inspires, they soon come to prize both Lord Carnarvon’s knowledge and his ancestry.
On the boat, Harry finds an old map showing an island in the Caribbean that is not included on modern maps. And because, as he later explains, “none of the old European explorers seems to have landed there and claimed it for his inbred, syphilitic king,” all they have to do is land on the island, subdue the locals, “make it into a haven for tax evasion,” and then “get rich off of the rake-off” (loc. 381–395).
To do that, however, they will need Carnarvon’s help to find a certain kind of man—one who can protect them and the start-up nation they are planning.
Lord Carnarvon happens to know such a man. His name is John Vickers. And after securing his help, they all head out on Carnarvon’s boat to find the island, which is when a huge new obstacle arises.
Given the title, it is not a spoiler to let you know that they find the island all right. But they only do so because it is low tide. In other words, this “island” can more often be referred to as part of the ocean. That, they realize, is why modern mapmakers ignored it.
To Harry, however, this is not so big a concern. “It’s just a little setback, a little bit of a challenge to show we can handle ourselves,” he says—as “the first small rivulets of the ocean” appear on the ground just above where he is standing and start to trickle down to his feet (loc. 497).
Naturally, not everyone in Island is as confident as Harry; in fact, nobody is. So this view comes to a head with the others as they wade back to the boat:
“I was just thinking this through [said Harry]. I know it’s a little empty right now, but—”
“Not empty enough,” muttered Vickers . . .
Lord Carnarvon said, “Harry, there’s a fish about the size of a school bus swimming around on the patio, and he’s here because his species has evolved to smell the sweat in your sneakers.”
Harry grinned. “No matter. Once we’ve adjusted the landscape a little we’ll kick his butt out of here. There’s plenty of room for him in the ocean.”
“Harry, this is the ocean,” said Emma. “We’re in it.”
Harry hugged her, then, began to pace back and forth, the water washing up to his shins at each step. “You’ve got to see with your minds, not with your eyes. Don’t you think I know we’re standing up to our ankles in seawater two hundred miles from the nearest land?”
“One wonders,” said Vickers.
“This is just our Noche Triste. In a little while we’ll be on dry land again, and feeling ready for the next thing.”
Harry held his palms upward. “It’s no good to us like this.”
“That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking,” said Lord Carnarvon. “We needed an island, and I’d say what we’ve got is a shoal.”
“No, don’t you see?” said Harry. “It’s a thousand times better for us. There aren’t any inhabitants to get in the way. There’s no chance any country has a claim on the place that we missed, because half the time there isn’t any such place. We’re in the money. It’ll just take a little longer to collect than I thought.”
The others stared at Harry in amazement. He was wet to the knees, his hair was disheveled from the sea breeze, and his eyes were bloodshot and tired. In this light, his skin looked a little gray, and his hands shook when he gestured, perhaps from the exhaustion of standing up all night to keep from drowning. But his voice was deep and clear, resonant with the confidence of a madman. Emma watched him, and felt a little tremor of fear. This was Harry at his most vivid, and he was going to talk them into something. She had no hope any of them would remain unconvinced, only that it wasn’t something that would destroy them. She listened for his next words, and when they came, she wasn’t surprised.
“What do you do when you find a choice empty lot?” asked Harry. “You build.” (loc. 504–517)
And build they do, at first by taking into the group a tugboat owner, who hauls three barges full of old cars to dump on the island—and then dirt and concrete and much else from wherever he and the others can secure it.
Soon, the above five have an actual and growing island. They take on tourists who want to spend time in an isolated place. They take on workers to make the island larger and ever more beautiful. Then, as they build forests, golf courses, and casinos, they take on a different class of tourists, those with a lot more money to spend.
They also establish a government, funded by a small fee charged for transferring assets into the country—a fee that those who want to avoid millions in taxes elsewhere are happy to pay.
The advancement of the island and the work of its government are not always easy, however, and the limit to which the characters can enjoy what they have created is tested as well. For example, how can this little island get itself recognized as a government by other governments? How can it protect itself from well-funded and well-armed looters? The way the characters solve such problems is as well thought-out as it is entertaining.
Similarly, with respect to Harry’s con man past, how can a person achieve happiness with ill-gotten gains or even feel secure in possession of them? The answer to this, along with the dramatization of the mental anguish through which Harry realizes it, adds some philosophic depth to the book.
Island, however, is not a philosophic treatise. Rather, it is a fun-filled, inspiring story. Perhaps the only thing that could make this story more interesting would be knowing you can easily read about the huge and fascinating project of its world by means of advancing and fascinating technologies in your own.