Thoughts: Don't Stop the Carnival, by Herman Wouk

Picture this: Niles Crane, of Frasier fame, is having a mid-life crisis and has decided to quit New York and go off to buy a resort on a Caribbean island. As in every episode of the awkwardly delightful Frasier (or Seinfeld, or 30 Rock, or most any excellent sitcom), everything that could possibly go wrong does.


This is the best parallel I can come up with for Herman Wouk’s delightful, wonderful, insightful and cutting novel of Norman Paperman, a middle-aged Broadway publicist who, after surviving a heart attack, decides to buy a small resort on a Caribbean island. But his visions of peaceful bliss, reading Ulysses by the sea, are shattered when Kinjan life interrupts his dreams of paradise: the hotel is out of water, the manager has disappeared, there is a gaping hole in the wall in the foyer, the aging celebrity in the cottage next door is having an issue with the drink, and Norm simply cannot wrap his mind around any of the confusing, slightly absurd ways in which the island works.

Norman Paperman, despite his strange name, is the envy of all his peers in his decision to quit the real world and escape to paradise:

“All these people were at an age when their lives were defined their hopes circumscribed. Nothing was in prospect but plodding the old tracks until heart disease, cancer, or one of the less predictable trapdoors under their feet. To them, the Papermans had broken out of Death Row into green April springs, and in one way or another they all said so.”

Don’t Stop the Carnival can be searing: I can understand some of Wouk’s hilarious, but all-too-honest depictions of the island culture, though others border on insulting in their overgeneralizations. But more than that, Wouk has captured the joys and trials and downright insanity of chasing down one’s dream, of fighting to build a paradise that could only have come from one’s imagination, only to find it is nothing like what you had expected. This battle is rewarding in its own right, and it is a joy to watch Norm grow up, at least a little bit, and become a stronger man because of his lost visions of paradise.

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This book is one of the classics I am counting as part of the Classics Club five-year challenge to read 50 classics.

5 comments

  1. This one has been left neglected on my shelves for quite a while. It sounds really good, though, so I may have to soon save it from TBR obscurity. Thanks for the great review!

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  2. Emily@Asthe Crowe FliesAugust 3, 2014 at 11:54 AM

    Hmmm...I have *very* different feelings about this book. It was one of the first that was recommended to me when I started reading Caribbeana. While I'm glad I read it because it was the first book that gave me an understanding of the difficulties of running a business on an island, I thought it was pretty terrible in his depictions/representations of islanders--they were colonial and patronizing and two dimensional best, and really racist and offensive at worst.

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  3. Interesting. I didn't get that impression reading it through the first time myself, but in hindsight, I can absolutely see how that makes sense. I did think some of the islanders were flat and over-generalized, but I felt that way about a lot of Wouk's characters.

    I'd love your recommendations for other Carribean reading. I just read Land of Love and Drowning, which I adored (and I don't think has the same issues as highlighted in Wouk's novel), and would love suggestions for more set around the islands!

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  4. Emily@Asthe Crowe FliesAugust 3, 2014 at 8:43 PM

    Anything by Jamaica Kincaid and Edwidge Danticat. They're both great and extremely literary. If you want something a little on the lighter side, An Embarrassment Of Mangoes is a very fun memoir of a Canadian couple who sailed from Toronto to Grenada and back again. James Marlon is a new writer coming out of Jamaica with serious literary cred. 'Til The Well Runs Dry is another debut multigenerational novel set in Trinidad, which reminded me a bit of the Tiphanie Yanique. That'll do for starters. Once I started reading Caribbeana, I kinda went crazy getting my hands on more.

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  5. Awesome, thank you for all the recommendations!

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