Southern Lit: Buffett Gets Salty

One staple of fan-fiction–stories written in existing universes like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings by overly-enthusiastic fans–is the “Mary Sue,” a character who bears an astonishing resemblance to the writer him- or herself. The “Mary Sue” character just happens to be astonishingly good-looking, sharp-witted, and resourceful, and somehow knows exactly how to get the heroes out of the thorniest problems. (“And now we must journey to Mordor,” Gandalf said, but his last words were drowned out by the incoming Blackhawk helicopter, which pressed the grass of the Shire flat as it descended. ‘Get your hairy hobbit ass in here!’ shouted the rugged, handsome, hard bitten yet sensitive pilot, Capt. Yaj Eebsub. And Eebsub yanked Frodo aboard with one powerfully muscled arm, rotored up to Mount Doom, tossed the ring in the volcano, and got back to Bag End in time for beer, ‘cue, and some hot-ass elf wenching action.”) It’s wish fulfillment at its most basic, and it’s so nakedly needy that it’s almost painful to read.

Just such a thought occurred to me as I read Jimmy Buffett’s latest novel, “A Salty Piece of Land.” The tale of one Tully Mars, who journeys all over the Caribbean, this is Mary Sue fiction on an epic scale–Tully is, in this case, standing in for every white male over the age of 25. Tully tells his boss to shove it, lights out for the territories, loves ’em and leaves ’em, and in short racks up a Waffle House jukebox full of country music cliches.

There’s no denying the allure of this kind of writing–Tully gets to hang on beaches, dine on tropical delicacies, man the wheel of hundred-year-old ships, knock the bottom out of a college hottie, and generally dodge anything that comes anywhere close to responsibility. The problem is that it’s a literary version of a Christmas wish list. There’s no real rhyme nor reason to Tully’s journeys aside from the fact that it’d be cool to have him wander through treehouses or Mayan caves or Spring Break hedonistic pool romps. And the narrative is a mess–Buffett continues to introduce significant characters with less than twenty pages left in this 450-page book. I made a mental list of all the things that my agent critiqued about my last book that are present in this one, and ended up running off the page. If only I too were a million-selling singer-songwriter…

So this book sucks, right? Nah, not at all. It’s a Buffett CD on paper. (Hell, it’s as close as you can come to a true multimedia experience–the hardback features a CD single that shares the name of the book, and several characters in the book show up in other Buffett songs.) If you know what you’re getting into, it can be a lot of fun. Let your inner Mary Sue scoot on down to the tropics for a bit. Just have some Cormac McCarthy waiting for her when she gets home.


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