The narrative of an adolescent travelling by water with an older companion, undergoing trials and ordeals, encountering scoundrels and villains, with glimpses of society from high to low as they drift pass: it doesn’t take long before the flavour of this picaresque novel starts to seem hauntingly familiar.
In his mid-teens towards the end of the 19th century, Dan, like Huckleberry Finn, escapes from a drunken father, and, though his journey is down the waterways of Europe rather than the Mississippi, the way he silently registers the corruption he sees all around him is deeply reminiscent of his literary forebear. His companion, the charming cad Captain Clarke B, could equally have walked out of Mark Twain’s novel, and just like Huck and Jim, Dan and ‘the cap’ have a series of encounters that expose the cruelty of their world.
The cap bursts into the English coastal hamlet where Dan’s family scratches a living, seeking a young apprentice for a forthcoming tour of the Continent. He means to show off his marvellous invention, an inflatable frogman suit in which he can supposedly run rapids, perform stunts and even hurtle over waterfalls with impunity. His aim is to attract men of science and administrators as well as the charitably inclined (it will save lives at sea), while death-defying demonstrations are sure to bring crowds and income. Dan quickly learns that the cap is as devious and cowardly as he is charming. This crash course in the way of the world forms the ‘rare education’ of the title.
As the cap cuts an energetic swathe through Europe’s female population, Dan gets an amorous education too, involving much more detail than would have been permissible for Twain. They’re run out of town on more than one occasion, landing with their rumps on feather beds one moment and hard ground the next. Heading south for turbulent Italy, Dan discovers that the cap has somehow become involved in desperate endeavours with dangerous people. Their adventures get wilder, their circumstances more extreme, their exploits more hair-raising, their escapes more daring.
Filled with extraordinary characters, the narrative has the same irresistible pull Dan feels in the rubber suit, as he’s swept into yet another escapade. A trip through the newly built sewers of Paris forms a particularly brilliant passage. He learns it’s best to keep your wits about you without looking too hard at what’s floating nearby. It’s a good policy.