22 April 2014

Back to the Carnival

by Dale C. Andrews

       Next month author Herman Wouk turns 99.
Herman Wouk
     
       In a writing career that has spanned over 70 years Wouk has produced an impressive array of literature. His first novel, The Man in the Trench Coat, was published in 1941. Wouk’s specialty has been the historical novel, particularly war tales and military-based fiction. We know him for Aurora Dawn, published in 1947 when Wouk was still an officer in the Navy. We know him for The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance. He wrote both the Pulitzer prize winning The Caine Mutiny and the theatrical version, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. But Wouk is equally at home in other settings. Marjorie Morningstar focuses on the aspirations of a would-be actress, and Young Bloodhawk (with some autobiographical underpinnings) chronicles the rise and fall of a young writer. Wouk’s latest work, The Lawgiver, published in 2012 when Wouk was 97 -- a Hollywood tale of an attempt to film the life of Moses told through an epistolary array of letters, memos, articles, and text messages -- prompted high praise from the Washington Post:
in some essential way, this book about a movie about a book is also about the very act of writing books. Wouk reminds us of the eternal value of storytelling while he shows 30- and 50- and 80-year-old whippersnappers how it’s done.

Sunset Point, Providenciales, Turks and Caicos
     All of this, however, is not strictly intended as an homage to the incredible career of Herman Wouk. Rather, it is an homage to one particular novel, which you may have never heard of unless you (like I) frequent the Caribbean. And yes, we are about to head south again -- this time to the Turks and Caicos (specifically, to Sunset Point on the island of Providenciales) for a family reunion with my brother Graham and his wife Nik.  We'll get back to that Herman Wouk novel in a little while, but first some background.

       There are very few islands in the Caribbean that Pat and I have not visited over the years. This trip we are settling down in one place, but most of the time we island-jump.  As you head south in the Caribbean it is like going back in time.  The further you go, the more apt you are to stumble upon the West Indies of the 1950s or 1960s -- small towns, secluded beaches dotted with small locally-owned beach front hotels, restaurants and bars. These are islands where large cruise ships never anchor and couldn't tie up even if they wanted to.

Island Windjammer's 24 passenger Sagitta
       For almost 25 years we cruised the small islands of the West Indies on the tall ships of Barefoot Windjammers, until the company went under back in 2007. Since 2009 we have continued to sail on the tall ships run by Island Windjammers, a small company founded by stalwart fans of Barefoot Windjammers. Island Windjammers ships, Sagitta and Diamant, arose from the ashes like phoenixes and now visit the same islands that have always been Windjammer favorites -- including many out of the way places like St. Vincents, Bequia, Statia, Carriacou and Union Island, where secluded Chatham’s Bay is about as great as it gets. Following the trade winds to these unfrequented islands -- mesmerized by the shimmering turquoise, watching for that illusive flash of green at sunset, walking the cobbled streets where activity slows under the sun -- who wouldn't begin to dream, just a little, about chucking it all; about pulling up  roots and heading south for good. Ahh, yes. For good. 

Bequia Book Shop
       And that is what Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival is all about: The Caribbean. You might have to look pretty far to find a copy of Carnival on the shelves of a bookstore in the United States. But it’s everywhere in the Caribbean. If you are walking down the sidewalk street that runs along the bay in Port Elizabeth on Bequia, just duck into the shade of the Bequia Bookshop. You will find a stack of copies. The same will likely be true at the Gaymes Bookshop on St. Vincents or at Nathaniel’s Book and Sports Supplies on St. Lucia. Or try the gift shop at any island hotel. At each of these you will stand a good chance of securing a copy of Wouk’s hilarious, sad and cautionary tale of what ensues when Norman Paperman, blinded by the beaches, breezes and bougainvillea, takes a deep breath and decided to forsake New York to run the Gull Reef Hotel on the mythical (but oh so familiar) island of Kinja. 

       Wouk was not the first author to set a story in the Caribbean. Alec Waugh did it in the 1955 bestseller Island in the Sun, set in Grenada, but now remembered mostly for the title song sung by Harry Belafonte in the 1957 movie adaptation. Ian Fleming used the Caribbean in several novels. Agatha Christie “went” there for A Caribbean Mystery in 1964. Even Stieg Larsson opens The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest with Lisbeth Salander idling the time away on Grand Anse beach in Grenada. But you are unlikely to find any of these tales at “down island” book stores.

       So what is it about Don’t Stop the Carnival that keeps it on the shelves and next to the beach chairs of the tourists and expats who populate the beaches of that magical string of islands to our south? Several things, I think. First, the central character in the book is really the Caribbean itself -- its beauty as well as the rickety, thrown-together nature of its governments and infrastructure. Wouk portrays the alluring charm of the islands (embodied in his fictional Kinja) while also showing the dark underbelly. We understand both why we want to live there as well as why actually doing so might drive us crazy. Second, Wouk accomplishes all of this while walking gracefully the thin line between comedy and tragedy. I laugh my way through Don’t Stop the Carnival every time I read it, but the message of the book is ultimately a sad one of failed and unrealizable dreams. The book, written in 1965, is both dated and timeless -- despite its setting, now 40 years ago, it continues to resonate because of its understanding and love of how the Caribbean works (and doesn't work). 

Ruins of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co.,
which later became the Royal Mail Inn on Hassel Island
       Like many other of Wouk’s works (pardon my alliteration!) Don't Stop the Carnival is premised on real life experiences. In the 1960’s Herman Wouk and his late wife Betty managed the Royal Mail Inn, a small Caribbean hotel located on Hassel Island, which is directly across from the ferry depot at St. Thomas' Charlotte Amalie Harbour. If you find yourself taking the ferry from St. Thomas to Tortola, visit the Petite Pump Room (upstairs above the ferry depot) for a drink and gaze across the harbour -- what you will see is Hassel Island.  And those abandoned buildings and ruins are what used to be the Royal Mail Inn, a real life dream that proved unrealizable for Herman Wouk. So, just as his war novels were based on his experience in the Navy during World War II, so, too, Don’t Stop the Carnival rings with authenticity simply because Herman Wouk wrote what he knew all to well. 

The Jimmy Buffett album
       Unlike Island in the Sun, Don’t Stop the Carnival was never filmed.  It did, however, spawn a musical adaptation written by another hero of all Caribbean expats and wannabe expats, Jimmy Buffett, in collaboration with Herman Wouk himself. I recommend that album, where Wouk cameos as narrator, as heartily as I do the original book.  The score and libretto are more operetta than musical -- taken together they "tell" Wouk's tale in its entirety.  It’s all there in song, from dream to disillusionment. You will, however, have a difficult time tracking down the album. It’s a little out of the ordinary for Buffett, and like the original book by Wouk caters best to the fanatical few who return whenever possible to the islands.  That tends to be a narrow (but deep) market.  

       Don’t Stop the Carnival ends with Norman Paperman’s wife Henny telling him “time to go home, Norman.” We all get there. But where we love to be is at the beginning, when Wouk sets the stage: 
Kinja was the name of the island when it was British. The actual name was King George III Island, but the islanders shortened that to Kinja. Now the names in the maps and guidebooks is Amerigo, but everybody who lives there still calls it Kinja.
The United States acquired the island peacefully in 1940 as part of the shuffling of old destroyers and Caribbean real estate that went on between Mr.Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill. The details of the transaction were, and are, vague to the inhabitants. The West Indian is not exactly hostile to change, but he's not much inclined to believe in it.
Meantime, in a fashion, Amerigo was getting American-ized; the inflow of cash was making everybody more prosperous. Most Kinjans go along cheerily with this explosion of American energy in the Caribbean. To them, it seems a new, harmless, and apparently endless, carnival.
       Want to try that again with music, pictures, and Herman Wouk narrating?  No problem, Mon.  Just click here

4 comments:

Eve Fisher said...

I'm going to go check out "Don't Stop the Carnival" today from my local library. I have to admit for years my favorite beach reading is "Marjorie Morningstar". The man could write. Enjoy your trip to the Turks and Caicos!

John Floyd said...

Dale, I too have read Marjorie Morningstar, and I have here on my home shelves The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War, War and Remembrance, The Hope, and The Glory, but I have NOT read Don't Stop the Carnival. Like Eve, I plan to fix that problem.

Great column today, about an interesting area and an interesting author.

Patricia Garnett said...

I'm an old WJ salt, too, more than 40 weeks on all the ships, plus lots of long island vacations. Don't stop the Carnival is funny, as you say, and enlightening about the way things run, or don't, as you say. Thanks for reminding me of the pleasure I've had reading Wouk's work over and over.

Dixon Hill said...

Took me a while to chime in because I was busy following your wonderful links!

I read The Winds of War and War and Rememberance while in high school, but now have to get more Wouk. Thanks, buddy!

--Dix