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August 2001
 
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Seaports in the Moon by Vincent Starrett (1928)

Imagine Potocki's grimly fantastic The Saragossa Manuscript (1804) comically rewritten by William Goldman in the manner of The Princess Bride (1973), or perhaps infused with the spirit of Monty Python, and you'll have some idea of the giddy, fizzy buzz supplied by Starrett's first novel, a historical fantasia spanning the years 1483 to the author's present, and revolving around a magical bottled draught from the Fountain of Youth.

World traveler, war correspondent and latter-day recluse, Starrett (1886-1974) was a consummate man of letters, writing large quantities of fiction, essays and journalism. But his erudition never interfered with his wit. Incredibly well-read, he incorporated many of his beloved fictional characters and his favorite historical personages into his sprightly secret history.

A dying François Villon gives a pre-fame Christopher Columbus vague hints about the legendary Fountain of Youth on the fabled island of Bimini. That one alluring whisper is all it takes to propel this episodic novel across the centuries, as various immortality-seekers---from Ponce de Leon to Cyrano de Bergerac to Rabelais to Alexander Pope---seek, first, the Fountain itself, and then, when it's found and lost, a vial containing a few precious drops of its waters. The ultimate chapter, set in the twentieth century, effectively disposes of the much-handled vial in an unforeseen, hilarious manner.

Mixing literary icons such as the Three Musketeers and Don Quixote on the same stage with more well-documented folks, Starrett presaged a free-and-easy postmodernism. This oftentimes Blaylockian novel merits Peter Ruber's description as "one of the great under-appreciated fantasies of this century."

—Paul Di Filippo

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