Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Day on Kinja

Everyone at Tiptoe’s Beach Bar in Charlotte Amaille harbor knew about Herman Wouk’s book Don’t Stop the Carnival.  “It’s one of the most famous things ever to happen to St. Thomas,” said Charlotte, a middle-aged woman working as a morning waitress and barmaid at Tiptoes.

Don’t Stop the Carnival tells the fictional story of Norman Paperman, a middle-aged press agent in New York City who one day suffers a mild heart attack.  While recovering and contemplating his future Norman reads an advertisement in the New Yorker about a hotel for sale on the island of Amerigo.  The island was called King George when it was under British rule but over time native islanders bastardized King George into Kinja.  With snow pilling up and his time clock running down, Norman makes a hurried trip to Kinja and after some dealings with a shifty associate purchases the Gull Reef Club and the result is a tropical disaster.

Wouk’s book was published in 1965 and twenty years later I discovered it in the bookstore of the Nassau, Bahamas airport.  It was at a time when I was traveling extensively and almost continuously in the West Indies and Wouk’s escapism theme struck a chord with me.  I read the book eagerly and fantasized about doing what Paperman had done.  By the book’s conclusion, it was clear that the heaven Paperman sought turned into “hell with palm trees.” It was a bittersweet lesson for him to learn and one that made me rethink my desire to hideout on a Caribbean island.

Several years after I last read the book my idol, Jimmy Buffett, purchased the rights to it from Herman Wouk and together they produced a musical by the same name.  It never opened on Broadway but it was popular in Nassau but not so in Miami’s Coconut Grove where a theater critic for the Orlando Sentinel said unabashedly, “The musical by Jimmy Buffett and Herman Wouk suffers from flat characters and weak songwriting.”  However the enthusiastic response to the musical caused the original end date to be extended several times to accommodate the audiences.  Obviously the Sentinel theater critic was not a Parrothead.  That same year Buffett produced the soundtrack as an album with the same title as the musical and it peaked at 15th on Billboard Magazine’s Top 200 album chart.  I’m not a music expert but 15th out of 200 suggests solid music to me.

The cover of Jimmy Buffett's CD/Album "Dont Stop the Carnival"

Wouk based Kinja on both Water Island and Hassel Island in Charlotte Amaille harbor in the US Virgin Islands.  One source said it was based on his experiences managing the Royal Mail Inn on Hassel Island.  Others have said it was based on his fictional experiences while he was merely a resident of the Virgin Islands, having moved there with his wife and two sons to escape the distractions of New York City. Whatever the truth, I wanted to discover more about where the book originated but each time I have traveled to the Virgin Islands I had other, higher priority, activities on my agenda.  When the Norwegian Star tied up at the cruise terminal on its way from Copenhagen to Miami, however, I had nothing else on my agenda but that island.

A local taxi starter at the cruise terminal told me the cost for a taxi ride to the ferry launch at Tiptoes Beach Bar was $100.  I told him he was crazy and took off on foot.  As I passed through downtown Charlotte Amaille during rush hour I felt like I was in Nassau or maybe Kingston, certainly not on a serene laid-back Caribbean island and certainly not one that could have remotely influenced Wouk’s writing about Kinja.

Kinja (Water Island) from the dock at Tiptoe's Beach Bar in Charlotte Amaille harbor

Ed, a local tourism tycoon on Water Island, knew everything there was to know about Herman Wouk and Don’t Stop the Carnival.  “I’ve lived on Water Island for 30 years,” he said, “and just like Norman Paperman I’m from New York.  The only difference is Norman went back and I never will.”

Seeking directions on this tiny island Ed told me to simply walk up the hill from the ferry dock.  “Turn right at the four-way intersection and you go to our beach.  Keep straight ahead and in a couple hundred yards you come to a field where the hotel used to stand.”  “The Hotel” was the example Wouk used for the Gull Reef Club.  It long ago outlived its usefulness and a combination of sun and time and hurricanes obliterated everything.  Unlike most of the rest of the West Indies, it was not replaced or rebuilt.

“There’s not a thing about the book I don’t know,” Ed boasted.  “If you have any questions come find me and I will fill you in.”  I asked him for clarification about whether the book is based on Water Island or Hassel Island.  “Remember how Hippolyte paddled between islands?  He was paddling from Water Island where the Gull Reef Club was over to Hassel Island.  Clearly the Gull Reef was on Water Island.”  Hippolyte Lamantine was the fictional gondolier at the Gull Reef Club.  It was only appropriate that he paddled between islands. 

Ed wished me a successful journey and left me saying, “I’ve heard so much about Don’t Stop the Carnival I think I’m going to write my own book and call it, “Stop the Carnival, I Want Off.”

I spent several hours on Water Island however in the absence of any actual remnants of the Gull Reef Club or where Wouk may have lived I sought out a beach where I spent part of the afternoon.  Megan, a local barmaid and self-proclaimed authority on virtually everything, gave me a ride back to the ferry dock after my time at the beach.  “Did you come over for a day trip at the beach,” she asked.

Honeymoon Beach, a great place to chill out and drink Carib beer, is among the many parts of Water Island that influenced Herman Wouk in his writing of Don't Stop the Carnival

Telling her of my interest in Wouk and the book, she declared with considerable certainty that Wouk may have occasionally visited Water Island but he certainly didn’t live there.  “If you ask me, that book is based on a hotel on St. Croix.  It has nothing to do with Water Island.”

Explaining further and mentioning my interest in the book because of the connection to Jimmy Buffett and his musical, Megan launched into a diatribe about Buffett.  “You know he’s opening a Margaritaville on St. Thomas, don’t you.”  Saying that I did she said, “It’s not going to be a Margaritaville, it’s going to be a Marijuanaville.” 

Megan explained how the US Virgin Islands had recently approved the use of medical marijuana.  “Buffett came down here a couple of years ago looking for a place for a new restaurant.  He searched three islands and chose St. Thomas because of the marijuana.”  Megan, of course, had no direct knowledge of this; it was all speculation.

As we arrived at the ferry dock she ended her diatribe saying “Buffett is the angriest little man I’ve ever met.  He sat in a bar here one day drinking $700 shots of tequila and leaving $100 tips. He did it all just to impress people.”  Apparently it impressed Megan because she remains livid that it wasn’t her receiving those large tips.

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to tell Megan about the night I sat backstage with him before a concert in Fort Lauderdale drinking beer (Jimmy opened mine for me) and talking about travel and fishing and conservation in the Caribbean.  He was one of the most down-to-earth people I’d ever met. 

Escaping from Megan’s golf cart just as the ferry was arriving at the dock her parting comment to me was “You seem to have a passion for the book and the story.  Why don’t you move down here and write the true story about Wouk, Buffett, and this whole Carnival thing?”  

Wouldn’t Megan be surprised if I showed up on Water Island one day intending to do exactly what she suggested.