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Getting on the map

Times Staff Writer

A kid with big ears, an eye patch and a mysterious inheritance could be the next boy hero to capture the imaginations of kids, and their parents.

He’s Chuck Dugan, the 18-year-old protagonist of “Chuck Dugan Is AWOL,” a very novel kind of illustrated novel from first-time author Eric Chase Anderson. It’s ostensibly an adolescent’s book, but for adults it’s a flashback to the joys of discovering those first favorite authors.

“Chuck Dugan Is AWOL” is the story of a U.S. Naval Academy student who trained with the Navy’s elite frogmen on spring break and with the Marines on a summer vacation.

We follow Dugan as he survives multiple brushes with death or serious injury while trying to stop the wedding of his mother to the Admiral, the story’s bad guy. As Dugan dodges attacks and counterplots from the Admiral and his rotten sons, he tests his skills as a tireless swimmer, expert engine fixer, daring rescuer and deft raft builder.

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He’s also rich, but he’s not emotionally invested in the mysterious inheritance that the Admiral is seeking to swipe.

Anderson, 31, a cartographer by profession, also has illustrated the DVD covers for the films “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” directed by his brother, Wes Anderson, 36. The quirky sensibility of those movies comes across in the younger Anderson’s book, a kind of deconstructed graphic novel.

The 223-page story of the teenage adventurer is delightfully interspersed with 143 color and black-and-white maps, floor plans and schematic drawings that help propel the plot, or upon deeper study, allow the reader to expand on the tale with his own conclusions. Eric Anderson’s illustrations, which even include a diagramed cocktail recipe, function as graphic footnotes. Some readers may speed through the fast-moving story, others may linger and lose themselves for a while in the clever details. For example, a map of the “U-Boat X” includes a list of supplies and weapons, such as “hatchets, tomahawks and aluminum baseball bats.”

To the lingerers go the rewards of figuring out some of the more perplexing plot twists.

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“It’s not obvious, but if you are willing to go with it, the experience of reading the book can open up,” says Anderson, a Houston native, from his home in New York. “There are little hidden doors in the maps. I think I would have gone insane with it if I were 11 or 12. That’s who I was writing it for.”

He knows well the mind of bored, smart kids. As a sickly child who voraciously consumed literature, U.S. Navy lore and the rich illustrations of “James and the Giant Peach,” “The Great Brain” and “The Wind in the Willows,” the grown-up Anderson delivers here the sum of his reading experiences and lifelong fascinations, particularly with maritime adventures.

“My ideas about the Navy and the Naval Academy were based on not-very-realistic World War II fiction,” Anderson says. Yet Chuck, who looks like a cross between Prince Charles and Wallace of “Wallace and Gromit,” is the kind of old-fashioned hero who doesn’t need a bank of computers or laser weapons.

“The struggles are genuine,” Anderson says. “He just relies on himself and his training. The training is not very specific, but it’s very romantic.” The book has the feeling of another era, in part because it was made manually -- on a typewriter and a drawing table.

The book actually matches the manuscript, which Anderson typed on one of his vintage Olivetti portables.

Though there are many historically accurate details in the terminology and drawings, Anderson doesn’t let them hijack the story.

“Genuine research starts to hurt my storytelling process after a while,” he says.

There are just enough gaps in the story that it begs for a sequel, or the very least, a movie. Wish granted. Anderson is writing a screenplay adaptation after Warner Bros. optioned the book rights. The live-action movie, produced by director Todd Phillips (“Old School,” “Starsky & Hutch”), will feature pertinent maps from the book.

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“If I can get my act together, there will be three more [books],” Anderson says. One will be set in London, another in the American West and a third could focus on Budd and Gus Dugan, Chuck’s father and uncle, nicknamed “Blood and Guts.” Chuck will likely maintain his teenage pirate look -- as long as temporary eye injuries force him to wear a black eye patch. The young, rich and dashing hero will always rely on common sense, quick thinking and amazingly resilient health to get the bad guys.

As long as the typewriter ribbon holds up, the adventures are just beginning.

Valli Herman can be reached at weekend@latimes.com.

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Eric Chase Anderson

What: The author will sign copies of his book “Chuck Dugan Is AWOL.”

Where: Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

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Info: (310) 659-3110


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