by Herman Wouk, 1965
Herman Wouk lived on St. Thomas for 6 years while researching and writing books. A real-life New York press agent bought a hotel in the Virgin Islands and told the story of his many mishaps. Norman advised him to write a book, but the press agent “demurred.” However, he encouraged Norman to write the book, and that is how this book came about.
It’s the story of Norman Paperman, a Broadway press agent, who falls in love with a fictional Caribbean island, Amerigo, or Kinja, from how the islanders say “King George.” He buys a tropical hotel, the Gull Reef Club, and dreams of a blissful life with his beloved wife, on this island paradise. However, as soon as he buys the hotel, things go terribly wrong: He loses his number one bartender and manager, Thor, to the former owner (Amy Ball) who buys a boat and steals him away. He faces a water shortage, which is a major disaster. As soon as he manages to avert that crises by paying an exorbitant price for water, it rains and rains and rains. Then he loses another faithful employee, his gondola driver become bartender, because the employment laws of the island forbid him to work as a bartender. All the while, Norman, a happily married man whose wife will be joining him shortly, is falling head over heals in love with Iris Tramm, a former actress, living in one of the cottages of his hotel. They hit it off famously and she is a big help to him in all of his travails.
Other calamities include:
- A too-optimistic and over-extended contractor who quits the island after tearing down a wall and ordering and having delivered toilets, sinks, and other building materials, for some new rooms for Norman’s hotel.
- An earthquake which cracks the water cistern which threatens the entire hotel.
- Iris Tramm turns out to have a really bad drinking problem, and she is the mistress of the Island’s black governor.
- The bartender he hires to replace his 2nd bartender is a sex maniac.
- One of his maids is a pregnant immigrant and if she has the baby on the island, the baby will be a U.S. citizen and Norman will be responsible for his/her care.
- He loses his best receptionist/hotel desk manager – she up and moves to Miami. He replaces her with the pregnant maid, who does a wonderful job.
- His lovely daughter, Hazel, is in love with a deadbeat English professor who is an arrogant pig. Hazel is bringing him with her for the Christmas holiday on the island.
- A crazy islander named Hippolyte comes back and fixes everything in the hotel: the electricity, the water pump, the cracked water cistern; and then he hires a crew and they finish building all the new rooms, beautifully. But when Lester Atlas, an absolutely disgusting Trump-style man who helped arrange the financing for Norman to buy the hotel, comes back for Christmas, he immediately fires Hippolyte. He does this because Hippolyte really looks and acts like a madman – he carries around a machete that he is constantly sharpening. But Hippolyte has saved the day for Norman. Now, Hippolyte has disappeared and Norman knows he is angry and wants to murder Lester Atlas.
The first half of the book was hard to read because he uses “Jesus” and “Jesus Christ” as expletives, and because of the suspense caused by all of these calamities. I kept reading, though, because the characters (except for Lester Atlas) are intriguing, his descriptions of the tropical paradise and the sea are beautiful, and I really wanted to see what happens. Well, everything comes together: Norman’s hotel is fully staffed and fully functional; he orchestrates the best Christmas dinner party ever held for the island elites, as well as simultaneously hosting the funnest beach party for all the hotel guests; he prevents Hippolyte from murdering Lester Atlas; and he saves Iris Tramm from humiliating herself in a drunken rage.
The following morning, however, two things happen: A policeman following up on Hippolyte’s arrest from the night before, shoots and murders one of the island’s famous gay men, right in front of Norman on his hotel terrace. Then, Iris is in a horrible car accident on the way to pick up her beloved dog, Meadows, from the vet (Hippolyte had slashed him with his machete the night before). She is in the hospital, all banged up, but lucid and alive, and then she has a brain hemorrhage and died, just after Norman sees her and talks with her.
Norman returns to the hotel, immediately sells it to one of the New York Broadway tourists who wants to change his life, and tells Henny, his wife, to pack up – they are moving back to New York. And they do – that day.
I enjoyed this book, but would have enjoyed it much more if there were no “Jesus” expletives, far fewer calamities, and if he would have stayed once he had finally worked everything out.
In the Introduction, Herman Wouk describes how Jimmy Buffett came to see him in his Palm Springs home, wanting to make a musical out of this book. They did it but it never made it to Broadway because it needed more work and neither one of them ever had the time. I looked for a copy of this musical but I don’t think there is a copy anywhere; probably a Jimmy Buffett album, but not a copy of the performance.
Here is the description of his first snorkeling adventure upon arrival at the island:
“He was wearing rubber fins and a face mask for the first time in his life, and he was charmed by the underwater beauty of the reef: by the parrot fish browsing on dusty pink coral, the gently waving purple sea fans, the squid staring with tragic human eyes set in little jelly bodies, and jetting off backwards as he drew near; and by the glowing clean pink color of his own magnified hands and legs. He was pursuing a cloud of little violet fish past a towering brain coral, and having a wonderful time, when he turned his head under water, and the breathing pipe puled out of its socket…”
His descriptions of the island and the sea bring to life the beautiful colors, the warmth, the scents, the sounds, but also the negatives – the trash, the sand fleas, the dangers, the mud and muck. When the odious English professor boyfriend arrives, he points out all the trash and negatives as they are driving to the hotel from the airport. Norman Paperman realizes he doesn’t see those negatives any longer – they are there, but he doesn’t see them. He sees only the bright green mountains, the blue sea, the flowers, etc.