Treasure this: A search for pirate gold and the meaning of life

Photo courtesy of Veranda Publis

“Bandstand, The Search for the Oak Island Gold” by Jib Ellis, Veranda Publishing, 2014, 390 pages, $16.95, available at Bunch of Grapes (Vineyard Haven), Edgartown Books, and at area libraries.

We all enjoy a perfectly-prepared bon mot.

In “Bandstand, The Search for Oak Island Gold,” long-time Island resident Jib Ellis serves up bushels of them, reason enough to read this reckless, funny, and literate novel about a hunt for 600-year-old treasure in Nova Scotia, of all places.

There’s more. “Bandstand” is a well-plotted story of five people who embark on a treasure hunt of two kinds. The nominal expedition is to Oak Island, Nova Scotia, a real place, in which Vikings, Knights Templar, and pirates of various stripes are rumored to have buried their loot, including the ever-popular Holy Grail and the answer to the Shakespeare or Francis Bacon controversy. The hidden treasure notion has attracted treasure hunters since 1795. Naturally, the local populace now offer an annual festival during which fortunes are presumably found in tourist wallets.

The fallback treasure hunt is the team’s group-funding Internet gambit in which memberships are sold, offering the opportunity to buy lottery chances for a share of the swag. Mr. Ellis told The Times, the 200-year effort to unearth Nova Scotian buried treasure “is a philosophical challenge, not an engineering challenge.” When you learn what Team Ryder’s map is, you’ll understand. “The book is not autobiographical, the characters are bits and pieces of people I’ve known along the way,” he said.

Mr. Ellis’s characters are authentic, individual — a few just this side of needing institutional care — but all resembling people and personalities we know that we know but just can’t place. Good stuff here: it’s got depth and it’s funny.

Ryder, the protagonist, is a 42-year-old rich guy who lives near East Chop. He loves boats, women, and not doing much. He understands the Island and its people.

Ryder is also having an affair of the heart with Charlotte Rosen, a snappy, gorgeous, age-appropriate, AA-loving attorney who is well aware of The First Law Of The Sisterhood: Men Are Not As Smart As Us. Ryder also knows this is true and he doesn’t care. He does believe that true love is balm to his semi-broken heart. Mr. Ellis delivers well-defined characters, each with its own clearly-described neurosis.

There’s Fitzroy, the Jamaican B-school genius; and Daniel, an Island Native-American computer wonk. Finally, there is Benson, a giant falstaffian character, Friar Tuck with a mean streak. Ryder, Fitzroy, and Benson met at Columbia and have remained pals.

While he has morphed himself into a Druid bard as we meet him, Benson’s career specialty is black ops. How black, you ask? So black that he doesn’t work for Uncle Sam. He works for a secret company that works for Uncle Sam.

Benson is my favorite. Everyone should have a Benson. Mine was Tom Trainor. Benson and Trainor shared remarkably similar attributes: staggeringly big, socially tone-deaf, limited impulse control, dangerous at rest, and extremely dangerous when provoked.

In our youth, Trainor enjoyed strolling into college bars to announce that he was “six-foot-five, 265 pounds of rompin’, stompin’ destruction.” Oh, the fun that ensued. Tom’s great heart blew up in Costa Rica 15 years ago while on a spiritual mission to establish a bar for workers in the Brazilian rain forest. I am not making this up.

Spirits like these are rare and they are irresistible, given the Prufrockian lives most of us lead. So despite documented knowledge of painful consequences, we go into the bar with them anyway. Thus, Ryder and his team make Benson their advance treasure scout. Ryder and the team knew better and they did it anyway. Gotta love it.

Mr. Ellis knows his pirates and his history. Norsemen and Europeans were rattling around the east coast eons before Cabot and Columbus. Ancient Irish were here in the sixth century.

This is a fiction, but also a story woven from strands of real history combined with research and generally logical projections. I have always seen pirates as ill-intentioned snowbirds, obsessed with tropical climates but the pirate rock stars (Blackbeard, Black Bart, et. al.) were here. One of them, trotting off the gallows, confessed that he had buried loot in Nova Scotia.

Mr. Ellis’s short bio reveals a varied writing past. He uses the language beautifully, delivered in a wry humorous style that indicates wisdom born of long experience with our often sketchy human condition. “Bandstand” is a shade longer than it needs to be and features, well, odd cover art. Of particular note was my reaction to occasional but startling deviations from structure, syntax, and punctuation. After a few outbreaks, I found myself saying, “Well, that’s Ryder for ya.” When the author can make you believe the character screwed it up, you got some writing, brotha.

“Bandstand” has its own personality. Leo Kottke wrote the principal blurb. Mr. Kottke has made a virtuoso musical career from blending disparate styles into a seamless whole. He understood “Bandstand.”

One Larry Miller wrote the other blurb. Mr. Miller is not identified but we assume he is not the right-handed pitcher who enjoyed virtually no success in a brief major league career.

Mr. Miller weighs in with the thought that “F. Scott Fitzgerald lied. There are second acts. Jib Ellis and Bandstand are living proof.” Good news for those of us who maybe didn’t knock ’em dead in the first act.

Author’s Talk with Jib Ellis, 7pm, July 30, Edgartown Library. For more information, call 508-627-4221. Mr. Ellis will also appear at Islanders Write, a one-day literary event sponsored by The MVTimes and Arts & Ideas Magazine. His book will be available for sale there, along with other independent authors Amelia Smith, Michael West and Tom Dresser.