Human life cannot be formless. We live by patterns. We move in comradeships. Conformity is evil when it distorts, flattens, and erases fruitful ways, strong ideas, natural identities; it is evil when it is a steamroller. But a man cannot escape being part of a milieu – and a recognizable part – unless he flees naked to a cave, never to return. The sensible thing is to use hard thinking to find the right way to live and then to live that way. What matters is living with dignity, with decency, and without fear.Herman Wouk, 1915-2019
I first heard about Herman Wouk through Jimmy Buffett, who wrote a musical and an album based on Wouk’s novel, Don’t Stop the Carnival, the story of a middle-aged New Yorker who runs off to the Caribbean to run a hotel. Carnival was semi-autobiographical, based loosely on Wouk’s years managing a hotel in St. Thomas.
This kind of story has a predictable arc: the protagonist learns that he can’t outrun his problems and he’s the same person in paradise that he was back home. Wouk covers this territory, but he goes beyond it, too. In Carnival, the protagonist doesn’t just face his own reality, he also learns the harsh truth about the “paradise” he’s escaped into. The Caribbean isn’t just America with beaches and a slower pace of life. It’s an entirely different culture that kindly, but firmly, refuses to bend itself to his expectations.
Wouk’s novel is critical of the mainstream American culture its protagonist is trying to escape, but it’s equally critical of the West Indian culture he finds himself in. This, I think, is one of the reasons Wouk is so rarely read or recommended today. He refuses to paint a sympathetic portrait of a society that is widely-perceived to be the victim of colonialism. He does so, however, for a damn good reason. Wouk wants to show us this culture through the eyes of his protagonist, who is not “woke,” and is far more interested in his own problems than he is with reflecting on cultural oppression or victimhood.
I read this book at the right time of my life. I was obsessed with all things Caribbean and even dreamed of running off to the islands. Wouk showed me that there was no hope of ever “going native.” It was unlikely that I’d ever culturally adapt to life in the West Indies and even more unlikely that the West Indies would somehow change to adapt itself to me.
It’s ironic that I came to Carnival through Jimmy Buffett, the man responsible for filling my head with unrealistic island dreams in the first place. Buffett does a fine job of bringing a romantic island experience into the cold North for those who can afford a ticket. Every so often, however, if you pay attention, he’ll remind you that his version of the Carribbean is a Disneyland and that anyone foolish enough to follow him back to paradise will find the real thing doesn’t match the album cover.
Rest in peace, Herman Wouk.