- by Carol Standish
As a lyricist, Jimmy Buffett is among the best of his generation. Always crisp and clever, Buffett’s word pictures are sometimes irreverently humorous (“My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink and I Don’t Love Jesus”), heartbreakingly tender ("Come Monday"), powerfully evocative of place or time past (“Biloxi”), tell a great story in a few deftly chosen words (his signature “Margaritaville”) and often just hilariously silly (like the good old “Cheeseburger in Paradise”). Above all, his ability to combine words is so totally original that listening to his songs is a pleasure to all and the envy of struggling wordsmiths everywhere.
Buffett has also written five books over his long career, two of which are novels. His third work of adult fiction, A Salty Piece of Land (Little, Brown, 460 pp, $27.95) was published last year after an hiatus of 10 years. Since the novels do not measure up to his lyrics one wonders why Mr. Buffett plunges into this medium every so often and why his books are gobbled up.
There is no doubt, however, that Buffett takes his novel writing seriously. In an accompanying author’s note to he says a respectful goodbye to recently deceased friends, George Harrison, Captain Gardner McKay and Fred Neil saying “the memories of good people and good work are timeless…I’d better get to work.” Although Buffet is first and foremost an entertainer and A Salty Piece of Land is meant to be entertaining, it is also Buffett’s tribute to good friends—both real and fantasized—and a contribution to the “good works” side of his life ledger.
As a kid, the book’s narrator, Tully Mars wanted to be Roy Rogers—“the good guy cowboy of all time.” And he certainly is, and oddly, remains so throughout the book in spite of the fact that in his teenage years (after he fell of his horse) his idol became Butch Cassidy. “From Butch I figured that what I wanted to be was my own man—just a good guy with a few bad habits.” In that single statement, Buffett has captured the imaginative yearnings of his whole generation. Regardless of his less than pyrotechnic talent as a novel writer, he certainly connects with his audience.
Later on in the novel Tully’s personal native American shaman tells him, “So many people live such dull predictable lives these days that the real adventurers are becoming a thing of the past—but their stories are like channel markers for the stormy waters of the future.” Tully and his band of good guy and gal friends and a 101 year old fairy godmother figure strive to be good for 460 pages. They occasionally fall off their horses and give in to their bad habits, (including a squeaky-clean yet kinky sex scene which boosts the story into the “adult” category). And the “Good” prevails true to form.
A Salty Piece of Land is five part old fashioned Roy Rogers 1950s western morality tale and five parts fantasy set in a paradise peppered with ancient myths, Caribbean magic and archetypal characters borrowed from the fantasy literature of the author’s youth. The influences of Star Trek, The Wizard of Oz, Robin Hood, Peter Pan and Treasure Island (as Kinky Friedman pointed out in his NYT review) are all detectable—and pleasantly nostalgic for those readers of the author’s generation.
Buffett’s novel writing style is straight forward reportorial—“he said, she said” but his way with words does pop up here and there throughout the book--in chapter titles like “Pancakes Make the World Go Round” and “Take Me to Your Blender” and more seriously, “The Seconds Between Light and Dark.” Sparks of dead-pan humor are abundant. “I have to admit I was a little nervous, lying in a chair with a towel over my eyes [in Havana] while a communist barber with rum on his breath held a straight razor to my neck.” There is no shortage of salty pith either, “grief is like the wake behind a boat. It starts out as a huge wave that follows close behind you and is big enough to swamp and drown you if you suddenly stop moving forward. But if you do keep moving the big wake will eventually dissipate.”
Buffett’s trademark tropical scenery, ocean passages, larger than life story-book characters, and buoyantly innocent confessional tone are certainly enjoyable. So why is it that with so much earnestness and sustained effort applied to the writing of this novel, did I heave so many sighs of frustration while reading it?
In a time when the bulk of the population is in permanent thrall of the emperor’s new clothes, I believe that those among us who have been identified as “channel markers” should be held to a higher standard regardless of their mythic stature or celebrity status. The novel simply does not sing. It has no rhythm, no skeleton, no steel drum riffs. Buffett has done his part. He wrote 460 pages but his medium is stanzas not chapters. A little rearrangement here, a little tweaking there and the book could have been a classic. The problem is in the organization, not the concept or the writing. Is there a working editor worth his salt left out there?