begins the journey to war by the ragtag crew of the sailing
ship National Intention, on which Commodore Thomas
ap Catesby Jones, a man whose “chaste” woman betrayed
him in favor of his more successful brother, sails to gain glory
and bring peace to the people of Mexican California.
Coates PhD’97 based his novel on an actual occurrence
in California’s history— the bizarre mistake made
by the crew of an American naval ship, commanded by Thomas ap
Catesby Jones, when they conquered the capital of Mexican California,
only to find that the were, in fact, at peace. When the commodore
discovered the unfortunate error and its impact on his place
in history, he had no choice but to give the capital—Monterey—back
Coates depicts the longings
of the crew, however humorous, as characteristic of man’s
view of the future—his dreams of escaping to a better
place, fleeing the past, becoming a new person—and the
overriding conflict between history and reality.
In developing the characters
of the crewmembers, Coates reveals with subtle humor the deficiencies
of each man. Commodore Jones, for example, dreams of fame as
a conquering hero who will bring freedom and democracy to the
Californians and dedicate his achievement to his lost love.
Hannibal Memory, the commodore’s steward and a former
slave, determines to remember the details of his capture and
the death of his own love while languishing in the cages below
deck on the slave ship. Jimmy Bush is coaxed aboard ship by
the promise of finding his parents, who “forgot”
to take him as they headed toward the western commodore, regaling
with exaggerated imagination the stories told him by other crewmembers.
He regularly records history before it happens, always depicting
Jones as the hero.
served in the United States Coast Guard for four years and the
Merchant Marines for another four, Coates knows the sea and
shipboard terminology, which contributes to the veracity of
the story. Writing comic fiction in any setting is “difficult,”
he says, “perhaps more difficult than writing ‘serious’
fiction.” He learned some of the basics by studying a
number of successful serio-comic writers ranging from Cervantes
to Joseph Heller.
Coates grew up in El Cerrito,
Calif., and vacationed in Monterey many times in his youth.
He got the idea for the book when he came across the story of
Jones’ mistaken conquest in a general history of California.
“I was doing research for The Blossom Festival [his first
novel] at the time,” Coates says, “and I was reading
broadly in the history of the West. It struck me as a perfect
comic set piece—the opera bouffe of western expansionism.
And even though Jones was a real historical figure, I wanted
to make him a quixotic soul, a comic Ahab, a person who believes
the world will yield to the desires of his imagination.”
Coates, a graduate of the
U’s creative writing program, says, “The Ph.D. program
was absolutely essential to the writing of The Master of
Monterey. I was able to follow my interests in the American
West as well as my literary and creative interests.” Coates
taught creative writing and composition at Southern Utah University
in Cedar City and is currently director of the creative writing
program at Bowling Green State University in Ohio (2003; University
of Nevada Press, Reno, Nev. 89557-0076; paper; $20.00).