Original, Curious, Appealing: Adventure Cunningly Diagrammed

Chuck Dugan Is AWOL: A Novel with Maps, by Eric Chase Anderson. Chronicle Books, 223 pages, $19.95.

If you’re nostalgic for the days when talk of the military brought to mind images of derring-do and not the black-hooded figures of Abu Ghraib, you’ll cotton to Eric Chase Anderson’s sweet boy’s adventure tale, Chuck Dugan Is AWOL, which bears the curious subtitle, “A Novel with Maps.”

That description isn’t inaccurate, just slightly narrow. Mr. Anderson’s story of an intrepid 18-year-old on the lam from the Naval Academy in order to stop his mother, Fraunces, from marrying an unsavory character known as “The Admiral,” as he simultaneously seeks the hidden treasure his father has left for him, isn’t quite a graphic novel-but the narrative isn’t text-driven, either.

The “maps” are underserved by the subtitle. Sometimes they’re depictions of terrain or blueprints of boats or houses, but just as often they’re carefully rendered, cunning drawings of items with their parts neatly labeled. A one-inch-by-one-inch black-and-white thumbprint, for example, has markings like “fresh scar (boat-hook?)” and “ulnar loop.” A representation of Dugan’s favorite drink, a Panama Canal, lists the ingredients required to make it (three parts rum to one part curaçao, a tablespoon of bitters and coconut shavings) and also points out the garnish of papaya on a miniature sword and the pilfered yacht-club tumbler that contains it. Dugan escapes peril on a “powered submersible bicycle,” diagrammed with fins, a faux water bottle that’s actually an ink bomb and an underwater propeller.

The maps do more than illuminate the minutiae of Dugan’s adventures. Without the drawings, this would be a simple, plot-heavy mystery (forget about character-we learn zero about Dugan’s past, or that of his comrade, Ensign Sally Wisebadger); it could pass for a young-adult book. Once you add the drawings, you get a curiously appealing package-just right for adults-that tests the waters of twee before drawing back its toes.

Mr. Anderson is the brother of filmmaker Wes Anderson, and the family resemblance shows-he displays the same quirky sensibility you’ll find in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums (the latter film and its DVD packaging featured some of Eric’s art).

Like his brother’s movies, however, Eric Anderson’s book occasionally feels like an exercise in style rather than substance. If the detailed drawings are a delight, the text of Chuck Dugan Is AWOL-displayed in a typewriter font-is comparatively flat and thin. Despite the satisfyingly stiff, heavy paper, this is a quick, light read.

But the gentle humor and sincerity of the illustrations more than compensate. A vaguely New Yorker –ish map of Dugan lost in the Atlantic consists mostly of blank blue, with a dot in the center and an arrow pointing to it that simply says “Chuck.” A map of a harbormaster’s office offers an aerial view of a coat rack, a Franklin stove, a swivel chair and a cup of coffee.

The cleverest illustrations are those of Dugan himself. One shows him with a grown-out crew cut, striped shorts with a buck knife strapped to the waistband, and a green tattoo-featured in an inset-of his family’s crest (two seahorses flanking a deep-sea diver’s helmet). Another is a skeleton with Dugan’s various injuries-which include broken ribs and a missing wisdom tooth-clearly marked. At one point, Fraunces flashes on her son at various ages, including a flash-forward to Dugan at 60. In each illustration, he wears a patch over his left eye-at 6 because he’s been the victim of a cat scratch, at 60 thanks to “enemy fire.” In yet another, Dugan-a master of disguise-dresses as a pipe-smoking Marine with a missing right arm (the labels explain that he’s wearing a desert scout hat and his grandfather’s boots); then he inadvertently uses his right hand to grasp something and the jig is up.

Everyone’s endearing-the members of the military and the villains, too. This is a book where people say things like, “Don’t mention it, mac” and “That boy just broke his silly neck” without a hint of irony. At one point, Mr. Anderson admits that his story is implausible, as women were only allowed to enter the Naval Academy in 1976, which would make Sally Wisebadger impossible. The apology for that anachronism is surprising, given that the entire book feels divorced from history. When mention of “the War” arises, it’s hard to figure out which one that would be-and it doesn’t much matter as long as we get to look at Eric Chase Anderson’s idiosyncratic and truly original drawings.

Natalie Danford is co-editor of the “Best New American Voices” series from Harvest/Harcourt, which showcases emerging writers.