Jimmy Buffett's debut novel is filled with diversions, getting nowhere fast



Jimmy Buffett.

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

382 pages. $19.95. Singer Jimmy Buffett has made a career of creating colorful characters, first on records and then in his 1989 best-selling short-story/essay collection "Tales From Margaritaville." But in "Where Is Joe Merchant?" -- his debut novel -- his job is trickier: how to contain his cast of eccentrics under one net.

The title character is a rock star who reportedly committed suicide five years ago yet has since been spotted in various locations. A trash journalist, Rudy Breno, is on the case and hires the novel's protagonist, seaplane pilot Frank Bama, to fly him from Key West to Havana, where the latest sighting took place.

The debt-ridden Bama has been planning to flee to Alaska, but when he returns from his brief Cuban jaunt, he finds his ex-lover -- Merchant's sister -- waiting for him. She's also looking for the dead rock star and is enlisting the help of a psychic named Desdemona.

Mr. Buffett interweaves his characters with good humor and a breezy, off-the-cuff style. As would be expected, he has a keen feel for the Florida coast and Caribbean islands and the hodgepodge of schemers, dreamers and wacked-out personalities who inhabit them.

But he takes some unfortunate shortcuts. He often tries to establish atmosphere simply by naming what song is playing in the background, and he depicts islanders' voices through demeaning literal transcription ("Yo' secret be safe wif me") rather than more subtle adjustments of speech patterns.

His biggest problem, however, is keeping the narrative from resembling one of Bama's flights that get hijacked and diverted until the pilot doesn't know where he is.

Given Mr. Buffett's musical background, it's strange how he lays out the Joe Merchant/Elvis/Jim Morrison parallels and then loses interest in them and in any naturally ensuing satirical points to be made about the rock and roll world.

Merchant may have been a drug casualty, but not even substance abuse adequately explains the scenario that transforms him from rock star to mercenary. Mr. Buffett supplies his share of exotic and amusing sights, but this book is more of a diverting flight than a lasting journey.

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