I imagine many readers are hard to impress. We spend our time exploring imaginary worlds and meeting extraordinary people; in the process, we open ourselves to so many possibilities that we almost come to expect the unexpected. With nonfiction, it can even be worse. Readers are smart people, so meeting a physicist or savvy historian doesn't seem so foreign. While these people might do things we cannot, often times that's a matter of choice. They went to school for four to eight years to study something we didn't. These are not talents we could not harness but rather things we found less interesting than our equally challenging fields.
Then there are people like Max Hardberger. There are many things we could all put our minds to and achieve, but being comfortable with stealing freighters out of foreign ports or having guns pointed at us probably aren't two of them.
Max Hardberger was kind enough to stop by the Current Events and History forum this March for a special "Sneak Peek" reading, where those who signed up for advanced copies of his adventure memoir, Seized, could pepper him with questions like, "Is there a way the average person can learn not to wet himself when he gets a gun stuck in his face?" Okay, he didn't answer that question—because it wasn't asked—but he was a nice enough guy that I suspect he would have. (You can still read his interaction with Book Clubs members here, here, here and here, but be warned that those discussions include spoilers.)
Max's skill set is something almost totally unique to us in modern life. He is rated to captain massive freighters in all the world's oceans, is a trained pilot, has a law degree, knows how to bribe foreign officials, outrun thieves, bluff cons, and teach high school—the last of which might be the most challenging. While hoodwinking opposing counsel and dealing with the hormonally overwhelmed might make for good primetime television, his book instead presents a more exciting prospect: a series of episodes of high-seas adventure, often dealing with pirates.
Somalia might have reintroduced most Americans to the concept of piracy on the seas, but most of Max's work is found in the Caribbean and Central America, what Americans at least geopolitically consider their own backyard. The harbors of Haiti, Mexico, Venezuela, and others present ample opportunities for ship theft. Perhaps a client waiting in a foreign harbor simply bribes local officials, lies, and claims that the cargo shipped to him was never delivered, then seizes a ship as recompense for the "lost" cargo he already paid for. Desperate owners who have no legal recourse—since, of course, the local officials are on the take—turn to Max to "extract" their ships. In effect, he steals their property back for them.
In most of these cases, Max works without any authority. Even though he's robbing from thieves and for the people who legitimately own their ships, he is still a thief himself. The bad guys can come in guns a-blazing, with the security of belonging to some sort of officialdom, but if he shoots anyone, he's in deep trouble. He's still in trouble just for getting caught. The consequences could be anything from indeterminate imprisonment and a denial that he's even in the country, to execution.
As a result, Max has to get clever. Guards on the ship have to be lulled into a false sense of security, plied with booze until they can be safely locked up. Ships have to be unmoored in silence and allowed to drift out of harbor before firing up their engines and drawing the attention of coast guard cruisers that could interdict them before reaching the safety of international waters. Each chapter is a different kind of action set piece.
For readers who like episodic sea adventure, like Horatio Hornblower or Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series, the different focus of each chapter may prove very rewarding. If you're not too enamored of this challenge or this exotic locale, just wait a few pages. On the other hand, some readers may find the lack of a consistent narrative discouraging. The plot doesn't rise to a stunning conclusion but rather rises and falls within chapters, as Max's crews' fates change with circumstances, then begin again in a new chapter. While it might be Max's story in a loose sense, Seized is really a collection of adventure anecdotes.
The one through-note to the story is Max, but he himself is fairly elusive. We get to know him through these stories, with a few asides and some preliminary biographical information rounding him out. For the most part, he's a mystery. He worries about being captured and never seeing his kids or his wife again, but the time spent with them is spare. He has a flirtation with a woman in Bruges, but is very coy about it. Years later, we discover that he and his wife have divorced, without explanation.
Max's distance from the reader shouldn't be an issue. Though his stories are nonfictional, somewhat "removed" narrators are of a piece with adventure stories. We're supposed to stay focused on the extraordinary action. The wherefores of the action aren't nearly as gripping as how it is carried out. This latter issue might also have informed another major decision Max made as a narrator: to compress time and composite events to tell a richer variation of a story that happened several times. I suppose this could prove nettlesome for sticklers of historical accuracy, but that seems a strange expectation for a book of pirates, capers, and deceptions.
Seized doesn't attempt an objective and detailed look at piracy, nor does it attempt an autobiography. It's instead an entertaining and unique look at a world likely alien to most Americans. Max is our guide into this world. We don't need to know that much about him, because we should be focusing on where he's pointing and saying, "Look!" What we'll find is a collection of tales about high-seas escape, theft, and strange bad guys, fun stories ideal for fans of naval adventure, beach readers, or people looking to take a book on a plane.
Whether you think it's a good idea to take the book with you on a cruise is up to you.