“People start acting stupid when a lot of money is involved, even people you think you know.” – J. Haviland, Goldhead
J. Haviland’s novel Goldhead is a couple of things at once: it’s a caper story (the modern thread of the story follows a group of WWII vets hired in 1959 by a shady tycoon to find a lost Spanish galleon’s treasure); it’s a history lesson (Haviland creates a fictional explorer’s journal similar to that of Bartolomé de las Casas that tells a parallel story of a 16th century conquistador’s expedition driven aground on the Florida coast by a hurricane that ends in disaster for all but the chronicler). Overarching both these narratives is the lust for gold – a fortune in gold from the Spanish colonial era that drives the behavior of the conquistador and his crew as well as that of the WWII vets and their crooked boss.
The novel is composed in alternating chapters and alternates between the Spanish expedition and the 1959 treasure seekers. Two things become obvious for the reader as this alternating plot structure unfolds: Haviland handles this plot structure beautifully, and avarice and greed separated by 430 years act in exactly the same way upon 16th and 20th psyches.
Central to his success in conveying the novel’s main theme (which is neatly summarized in Timothy 6:10) are the parallel characters Claudio Hernandez, author of the journal from the conquistador’s 1523 expedition and Ben Wheeler, a U.S. Navy diver and one of the crew of treasure hunters in the 1959 story. As Claudio chronicles the greed that eventually drives his commandante, the conquistador Bernardo Gregorio de Seville mad and lead to his horrific death at the hands of Native Americans he once enslaved, Ben chronicles the struggles and disasters that eventually lead to injuries to his fellow divers Dan Hampshire and Bill Walden and the eventual death of their greedy employer, the unscrupulous Noble Fischer.
As the parallel narratives develop, Claudio and Ben serve the reader not simply as chroniclers but as observers and commentators. Most importantly, they serve as consciences for their expeditions. After the death of his commandante, Claudio is released by their captors and allowed to make his way to a place on the coast where he will be found by a Spanish ship. His ordeal has made Claudio, a highly ethical and religious man in the conventional manner of his times, see the folly and evil of the Spanish conquest of Native American civilizations:
If he ever stepped on the shore of Spain, nothing on earth could make him return, but he knew others would not listen. Others would return with more ships, more soldados, and bigger armies. The old world’s greed was unquenchable and now their hatred would be inexhaustible. He had seen Paradise. He could not share it, but neither would he watch it be despoiled by the conquistadores.
Ben Wheeler, though not as eloquent as his Spanish counterpart, realizes that the greed that eventually took hold and drove him and his companions to seek out the Spanish gold has exposed them to the same self-destructive impulses that drove the conquistadors and their armies. After he hears of the air crash that kills his greedy boss Noble Fischer and sends the gold to the bottom of Florida’s largest lake, Ben muses:
Slowly, a faint smile played across Ben’s face. It was more than irony. It had to be fate. The gold head had returned to its watery grave. Jim was right. That thing should never have seen the light of day.
Goldhead is the best kind of novel of its genre – it is a novel that provides a great ride even as it reiterates a great lesson.