Thursday, January 15, 2009

Don't Stop the Carnival

The deep freeze finally got the best of me. I packed my bags and went off on a Caribbean adventure with two favorite characters - Jimmy Buffett and Norman Paperman. Right now, while you shiver in your long johns, feeling the guilt of having wished away those 100 degree temps in August, I am sipping a coconut and pineapple concoction on the rickety boardwalk of a colorful island hideaway.

In reality, I'm reading Herman Wouk's Don't Stop the Carnival, and listening to bit of a musical soundtrack by the same name. If you know me well, you know that flying doesn't suit me, but the right book at the right time works just fine for a quick getaway. The way I figure it, we have a few more weeks of this cantankerous weather, and I refuse to spend those weeks yammering about how relentless Mother Nature is... burying us in heavy white gunk which we must shovel day after day, or, when the mood strikes, she attempts to freeze us in some dialbolical science experiment. Instead, when it gets to be too much, I will run away.

The comedic "Carnival," written in 1965, is a departure for Wouk, who is best know for more serious works including Marjorie Morningstar, The Caine Mutiny, and War and Remembrance. Our hero, Norman Paperman is a successful Broadway producer (Wouk got me right away with the theatre theme) who has a heart attack, an epiphany, and a mid-life crisis in quick succession. Like many straining to escape the rat race, Norman briefly explores his options, and then hastily decides to buy a hotel in the Caribbean. Makes sense, doesn't it?

From there, Murphy's Law rears it's ugly head, and Norman's dream of life in a tropical paradise is threatened at every turn. Welcome to the isle of discontent, Norman Paperman! Upon his arrival, Norman is greeted by the governor who walks him through the hotel, pointing out the existing violations which must be fixed immedialty. The hotel water system fails on Norman's first night. It has run dry due to a drought, and the emergency cistern works on a pump that no one actually knows how to operate. When, Hippolyte, the former hotel handyman agrees to return to work, Norman discovers that he is a homicidal maniac - yet another issue for Norman to resolve.

Amid the craziness, a bouquet of colorful, engaging characters bloom. Is it sadistic for me to say that it was fun watching someone else's troubles? No. That is exactly what Wouk wanted. He effectively creates the type of tension where, page after page, you're blurting things like "No, Hippolyte isn't really going to try to behead island millionaire, Tom Tilson...oh yes he is!" That happens time and time again. Wouk sets up the situation, leads you down the path, then quickly doubles back, masking the impending doom in a veil of false security. And, then, with a simplly turned phrase, - disaster. If you're a person who feels the need to warn those sweet young things in slasher movies..."No, don't go up the steps. Please, please, please, don't walk down that dark hall. Grab a baseball bat, for crying out loud. OK, well, it's OK that you're up there, but don't open the bedroom door...Oh jezze, I told you not to do that!" - you'll like this book. It's Herman Wouk -obviously it's going to be more sophisticated than a slasher movie. All sorts of themes present themselves, for those of you who need justification for reading a farce of a tale like vs. lust, fantasy vs. reality...the nature of friendship, the complexity of desire....

Jimmy Buffet, who in my estimation, is one of the best musical storytellers around (and runs a close race with Johnny Depp for my affections,) took on the legend of Norman Paperman. In 1997, he debuted a musical taking it's name and plot from the Wouk novel. Basically, it bombed, but the music is magical. It stands alone nicely as a concept piece without knowing the book, but is much richer if you have read Don't Stop the Carnival.
So, that's it. No time for a little joke this week. I'm late for a Harry Belafonte concert.

***Is it just my imagination, but does that Jimmy Buffett profile at the top look at teensy bit like our favorite, local high school principal?

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