Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Book Review: Don't Stop the Carnival

A Fair Trade Book (awesome!)

Title: Don't Stop the Carnival

Author: Herman Wouk

Publisher: Doubleday

Date: 1965

Length: 395 pages

Quote: “The West Indian is not exactly hostile to change, but he is not much inclined to believe in it...all anybody does in this life is live for a while and then die for good, without finding out much...the idea is to take things easy and enjoy the passing time under the sun.”

Which West Indian Wouk had in mind, I don't know. I am not the ideal reviewer for this novel. I was born too late, and in the wrong place, to have any idea how clearly Herman Wouk described a time, place, and experience that used to be real. I can read Don't Stop the Carnival as a fantasy about somewhere long ago and far away, and as such it holds together well enough to be an enjoyable read. What my husband, who did have some real memories of what real West Indians were thinking in 1965, would have said to Don't Stop the Carnival, I don't know. Which West Indian was that, and what contract gave Wouk the right to speak for him? But autre temps, autres moeurs; in 1965 this novel was not considered exploitative or even presumptuous.

The central character, with whom Wouk seems to have identified, is a “Broadway press agent” called Norman Paperman. He falls in love with a charmingly run-down hotel, buys it, and spends a hectic vacation trying to make it a successful business venture. This of course becomes a predictable comedy of errors, with local odd jobs men refusing to replace a worker Paperman has fired, water supplies seeming to defy laws of nature, an employee giving birth on a customer's bed, and more. Paperman's daughter has been dating a demographically appropriate bore whom Paperman dislikes; during his stay on the island she becomes more interested in a less demographically appropriate but manlier young man. Paperman, himself, is thoroughly married and intends to stay married, but the events of the story, like an ocean tide, just keep bouncing him up against burned-out movie star Iris Tramm, who shows herself to be a good friend as well as a good lay, and then comes to her own unhappy ending. The story is believable while it lasts, and if you've ever enjoyed staying at a hotel on a beach it should evoke enough pleasant memories that you can forgive it for lasting for 395 pages.

What's not to like? I don't care for the way Iris Tramm is treated in this novel—although it's period-appropriate. Wouk obviously saw her as a mature, interesting, intelligent human being. Perhaps she was; although Hollywood publicists didn't call attention to it if movie stars were intelligent, there's plenty of evidence that some of them were. So, if Iris Tramm can be a real friend to Norman Paperman without violating his marriage, which she can, why does she violate it? Because in 1965 people wanted to believe that a Real Man and Real Woman wouldn't be satisfied by “just” being friends. And although the man was the one expected to pounce, the woman was the one expected to take the blame—for being a woman—and punish herself by coming to a terrible end shortly afterward. I don't like that way of thinking and am glad feminists have done so much to make it seem outdated and wrongheaded. Even in 1965 women who could be friends and respect a man's marriage did exist, but there was a tendency for male writers not to have known any of them and thus not to be able to write about them.

Then there's the way Paperman and the other characters think about ethnicity...now that's something I do remember about Americans in 1965, and it's period-appropriate, authentic, plausible, and to my mind Paperman is relatively enlightened about it, but I can imagine how younger readers might be offended by it if they're anything but Jewish and embarrassed by it if they're Jewish.

Otherwise, this is an enjoyable riff on the theme of “Everybody's incompetent when they suddenly start doing a completely different job.” Definitely an adult plot, with some extramarital sex and some gruesome fatal accidents, but not so adult as to be tasteless or trashy. Anybody who has time to read novels is likely to enjoy reading Don't Stop the Carnival once. I liked it better than Marjorie Morningstar.

And it's still a Fair Trade Book! According to the Internet, on the day I uploaded this review, Herman Wouk was 100 years old. Well done. He won a Pulitzer Prize for The Caine Mutiny and earned plenty of money on Marjorie Morningstar, War and Remembrance, and Don't Stop the Carnival in the 1960s, but he's still entitled to have, or redirect to a charity, 10% of the total price of any of his books we sell.

So, what will that price be? Depends on which edition you want. Hardcover editions of Don't Stop the Carnival are collectors' items; the one I physically own has had a rough life and would cost a local lurker less than $15, but $15 is as low as this web site can go on a clean hardcover copy in good condition. Paperback reprints are cheap; you can get those for much less than $5 per book plus $5 per package, for a total price of $10...but those other secondhand booksellers won't send Wouk or his charity anything, and, as long as the writer lives, this web site will. Payments can be sent to either address in the box at the very bottom of the screen.