Jimmy Buffett – A Salty Piece of Land (2004)
Although I am a fan of Buffett’s music, I’ve never gotten around to reading any of his books until now; unfortunately, if A Salty Piece of Land is representative of his work, I may just pass on the rest. Excited by the prospect of a humorous tale concocted out of little fruity drinks, swaying palm trees, a bit of decent fishing, and a lot of quirky characters, I got what I bargained for, and more. The “more” is the problem. A Salty Piece of Land is simply TOO MUCH.
The plotline concerns the adventures of one Tully Mars, a Wyoming cowboy-turned-fugitive who ends up sailing to the Caribbean after a flimsy, stupid digression that would see him end up in jail in America. Along the way Mars meets a number (a VERY LARGE number) of interesting people who help him find sanctuary, find work, find love, and eventually, contentment and a course to follow in life. One of the most significant of these characters is the 101-year-old sea captain Cleopatra Highbourne, who willingly acts as a mentor and muse to Mars, as well as setting him on a quest to help her restore the rare source of light to a dilapidated lighthouse on…you guessed it, a salty piece of land in the middle of the ocean. This quest, which mirrors Mars’ efforts to find stability and quietness in his own life, is the driving force of the novel, but it gets so bogged down with all the little incidents that occur around it, that the reader eventually loses interest. (The subplot concerning Mars’ friend Willie Singer and his travels is particularly annoying – yes, Singer is instrumental in helping find the lighthouse light, but I don’t know that his rambling letters to Mars are entirely necessary). But…I suppose life is like that: you think you know where you’re headed, you think you have a goal in life, but then all these little things keep cropping up, all these people keep showing up, and you’re supposed to savour the whole journey while somehow keeping the ultimate goal in mind. So, as a reader, we should appreciate Mars’ little immature alcohol- and-weed-fuelled sexploits, his love of music, his observations about fly fishing and the beauty of his surroundings, his deep thoughts about art and history…all the sidelines and bylines of his life as he searches for the lighthouse light. And while some of it IS interesting, and while I have a deep love for any book that transports me to the tropics, it’s just a huge mishmash of incidents stitched loosely together with a brave but insubstantial thread of philosophy. Buffett wraps the book within an author’s note and afterword that discuss the deaths of several significant people in his life, as well as the events of 9-11, and I suppose he really intended it to be a lesson in “live life to the fullest, in the here and now.” Yet, although this message certainly isn’t lost on the reader, the effort to acquire it becomes simply too tedious.
Cormac McCarthy – Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (1985)
I really think I waded in way too deep with this one; I’m a massive fan of McCarthy’s unique and elegant style (he really is one of the best American novelists of all time), and this book contains some of the most sumptuous and gorgeous prose ever written, but I have to admit, I couldn’t consistently hang onto the plotline. I kept looking for the easy way out and there isn’t one – this book requires multiple readings to get anywhere (which may not be a bad thing, as the language is meant to be thoroughly savoured). Concerning the journey of the kid (not in capital letters), an abused boy who joins in with a ragtag band of criminals and soldiers in an (initially) government-sponsored mission to eradicate various Apache bands, McCarthy pulls out all the stops to describe the horror and violence of the American west in the 1850s. This is not your average western: there is nothing sanitized about it, and the indescribably brutal and senseless acts of depravity that occur are difficult to deal with. No life is held sacred as the body count piles up, and the weather and the landscape are constant aggressor-saviours. Clearly, McCarthy means to show us that the American expansion to the shores of the Pacific was a struggle of race, of gender, of the strongest man (the white man) dominating everything under the sun, including all plants and animals, all minerals and ores, and, of course, his fellow man. It’s not pretty, and it’s not Hollywood, but it certainly provokes thought and debate.