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Where is Joe Merchant?

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To hear Jimmy Buffett tell it, the singer-songwriter has been ”making up stories since his first confession.” At least that’s what it says on the jacket copy of his first novel, Where Is Joe Merchant?, and to fans of his clever, Caribbean-accented ballads, the boast has the characteristic Buffett tone. Even slyly witty chapter titles like ”Suntans and Percodans” and ”You Can’t Hide Your Mayan Eyes” sound like the song list for a new album. There are many allusions to tunes known by heart by the ”parrot heads” who flock to Buffett’s live performances chock-full of frozen margaritas and dressed up in nautical garb.

But do not be deceived. Unlike the stories in his best-selling collection, Tales From Margaritaville, Buffett’s novel is no sunshiny cruise on the Gulf Stream. At the beginning, everything appears familiar enough. Protagonist Frank Bama, an easygoing dude who runs a one-man seaplane charter out of Key West, seems an acceptable Buffett hero. ”I had no trouble adapting to the life-style,” Bama tells us. ”Fishing guides and pilots were prime candidates for the tourist girls who came to fall in love for the weekend. The real world seemed a million miles away, and that’s where I liked it.”

Due to an unfashionable refusal to smuggle dope, however, Bama has difficulty making payments on his plane, Hemisphere Dancer. He takes on an unlikely assignment. A reporter for the tabloid National Lighthouse has heard that suicide victim and rock legend Joe Merchant, who vanished at sea five years earlier, is alive and well in Havana, and he wants Bama to take him there. If confirmed, the news would be nothing less than ”the Hope Diamond of yellow journalism.” So far so good.

But then a romantic interest shows up, and Where Is Joe Merchant? takes an alarming turn toward melodrama. ”I didn’t need any more problems or excess baggage,” the narrator informs us in a line copped directly from the handbook of the Famous Thriller Writer’s School, where Buffett has evidently been taking correspondence courses, ”and unfortunately Trevor Kane always had plenty of both.”

Just by coincidence, Trevor is not only Bama’s long-lost love but Joe Merchant’s sister. And she wants him to fly her to a remote island near Haiti, whence she has received a cryptic note from a former backup singer named Desdemona, who has been channeling messages from the Pleiades (yes, the cluster of stars in the constellation Taurus) hinting at all manner of mystical wonders involving the late guitar hero.

Headed in more or less the same direction is a megalomaniacal loon named Colonel Cairo, who eats manatee (an endangered species) and talks like a villain out of Crusader Rabbit: ”With your brother’s money, Miss Kane, I will finally have the wealth and power a man of my importance deserves.” What Hitchcock called the MacGuffin isn’t merely the elusive Joe Merchant, but a scepter with magical powers that Colonel Cairo intends to put to evil uses.

Alas, it’s not possible to summarize the plot any further without making it sound even sillier than it is. Suffice it to say Buffett throws in enough hairbreadth escapes and miraculous rescues to fill two Robert Ludlum novels and have enough left over for an episode of Rescue 911. All that and talking dolphins, too! Only the novelist’s familiarity with the islands, boats, and seaplanes saves Joe Merchant from being an absolute disaster.

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