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Blue Latitudes

Posted by on August 23, 2007

I just finished reading Blue Latitudes, Tony Horwitz’s nonfiction best seller about Captain Cook. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Horwitz presents a ton of information about Cook, from his globe-encompassing routes to small details about the man (Cook was tall, and did not seem to understand the point of religion). He also travels to many of Cook’s landing sites, comparing Cook’s first impressions of places like Tahiti and Hawaii to the modern day islands, noting how colonization and Christianity have changed island cultures almost beyond recognition.

Lest you think this book is dry, this is the paragraph where I tell you about Roger, the English ex-pat who lives in Australia and follows Horwitz around on his journey, drinking and attempting to “pull crumpet.” Roger’s comedic booze-and-babe commentary is so well-timed that you feel he must have been invented by the author, or at least greatly rewritten from the original. He seems like the imagined Brad Pitt to Horwitz’s humble Edward Norton: a handsome, rugged man’s man who can go off and have man-fun while Horwitz schleps from Cook scholar to Cook scholar. “He was tall and broad-shouldered, with sun-streaked blond curls, and blue eyes set in a perpetually tanned face,” Horwitz writes breathlessly.

And Roger gets to say all the things Horowitz can only hint at. After a page of restrained description of modern Tahitian slums, tense with the attempt at being non-judgmental, Horwitz gives way to Roger’s complete disregard for political correctness. “It’s an utter shitbox,” Roger says. “The architects who designed this town must have been unemployable anywhere else.”

Strengthening the “imaginary friend” theory, Roger does not manage to pull crumpet until the epilogue, despite his sun-streaked curls. After all, you can’t have your imaginary friend leaving you to roll on the beach with some island princess. You’ve got to have him with you to provide wry, occasionally slurred commentary.

In some ways, Roger is the crew to Horwitz’s Captain Cook. Cook referred to his crew as “the People,” and like Roger, the People were cheerfully, drunkenly lecherous, only kept in line through great exertions on Cook’s part. Then again, Cook himself was not above a souse-up now and then. “Can we make a friend more welcome than by setting before him the best liquor in our possession?” he wrote in his journal.

I heartily agree, and that is why all guests to our home are offered glasses of the most expensive bottle of two-buck Chuck money can buy.

Blue Latitudes is an excellent combination of armchair travel and history. You might also like it if you like some of the more hapless characters in Christopher Moore books.

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