Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Don't Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk

I struggled to finish Herman Wouk's Don't Stop the Carnival, not because it was hard to read, but because it was too familiar. In fact, a couple years ago it went into the Did Not Finish pile, and only recently was re-exposed to the light of day.

Listen: I grew with a father who was an incorrigible Jimmy Buffett fan. So, yes, of course I knew Buffett's musical adaptation of Don't Stop the Carnival long before I knew that it was based on a book. And the adaptation is faithful; Wouk even worked with Buffett to produce the musical.

Listen: while it may have been a scathing, and daring, critique of American business culture, involvement in the Caribbean, and race relations in 1965- fifty years will take the edge off most anything.

Norman Paperman is a workaholic, a philanderer and emotionally vacuous. And when he can't have his life the way he's always imagined it, he packs up his toys and goes home. I suppose I should feel either pity or satisfaction that he gets his come-uppance, but I've seen it coming- and I think I would have seen it coming even if I hadn't known the Buffett version. I'm indifferent to his struggles.

I think of Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter, about a British soldier in colonial Africa torn between his love for his wife and his feelings for a native girl. Published nearly twenty years before Don't Stop the Carnival, Greene's novel has maintained its urgency because it is built around a central character who is tragically flawed, and whose desires are as sincere as they are irreconcilable.

Much of Don't Stop the Carnival is satirical: the shiftless natives, the Byzantine labor laws, the island's incestuous internal politics. But the institutions being satirized are so long gone, I need to do serious research to see much more than the joke.

Is it about the moral vacillations of white people who say they want social change, but please not too much and don't let it disrupt my life... ? Is it about the arrogance of a business man to think he can be successful at any endeavor... ?

I've heard these jokes before, and I've heard better ones, too.

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