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Published: Saturday, 12/18/2004

It's fun to escape with Buffett

BY THOMAS WALTON

A SALTY PIECE OF LAND. By Jimmy Buffett. Little, Brown. 460 pages. $27.95.

Ask Jimmy Buffett where Margaritaville is, and he'll tell you "It's any place you want it to be." The same could be said for Cayo Loco, the deceptively idyllic tropical island setting for Buffett's newest novel, A Salty Piece of Land.

Buffett's first-person storyteller this time is Tully Mars, by choice a tropical expatriate, who grew up as a young buckaroo in Heartache, Wyoming, admiring Roy Rogers because he was so good and then Butch Cassidy because he was so bad. The reader quickly realizes that much of what happens in A Salty Piece of Land, except maybe for that Wyoming thing, is a tall tale rooted in some fashion in Buffett's own life.

The cast of characters Tully Mars encounters along the way strains credibility a bit, including a chap named Ix-Nay, a pony named Mr. Twain, and Cleopatra Highbourne, the woman who hires Mars to restore her lighthouse (she's 101 years old). But we give Buffett the benefit of the doubt because these people - and even the horse - probably exist somewhere in the author's colorful past.

Because Buffett is first a storyteller, then a musician, he has a knack for painting with words that somehow transport the reader to some magical and warm place. You don't just read about the lighthouse stairs, you feel them creaking beneath each step. You don't just imagine the turquoise sea, you see it. The aroma of night-blooming jasmine and pine needles fills your head.

The same over-the-top imagination that fuels the music he writes creates bizarre but fascinating vignettes in the book. One dream sequence pits a Cuban baseball pitcher against revolutionary Che Guevara, who strikes out, despite swinging a hammerhead shark plucked from the ocean. Only Buffett could make this stuff up.

In fact, the plot is not the point. Will Tully get the lighthouse - clearly a symbolic and spritual beacon - restored? Will he elude the bounty hunters who've chased him to the Caribbean? Will Cleopatra make it to 102? It doesn't matter. Like any trip to Margaritaville, it's all about escapism.

Some readers might see a little Robert Louis Stevenson in Buffett's story; for me the book is evocative of Herman Wouk's Don't Stop the Carnival - which is to say, paradise is not always perfect. Buffett, in fact, collaborated with Wouk a few years ago on a musical based on Wouk's book.

Throughout A Salty Piece of Land, Buffett drops lines from his songs into the narrative or a conversation, phrases that offer a knowing wink here and there to his Parrothead fans but remain harmlessly unobtrusive to anyone else and to the story line.

With a nod to his musical side, Buffett even recorded a song in tribute to the book's primary character, Tully Mars, and tucked the one-song CD into every book, the touch of a master promoter. He also played a live concert on Dec. 8 in New Orleans to promote the book. Parrothead fans in theaters across the country could ask questions directly of Buffett during the simulcast. The guy thinks of everything.

Buffett the novelist is a concept that still surprises a lot of people who know him only as Buffett the barefoot singer partying in the parking lot with his legions of Parrotheads.

But this is not Buffett's first book. Far from it. That came in 1988, when he co-wrote The Jolly Mon, a children's book, with his 6-year-old daughter, Savannah Jane. Later came Tales From Margaritaville, then a novel called Where is Joe Merchant?, and his autobiographical A Pirate Looks at Fifty.

Today Buffett is still a pirate, except that now he's looking at 60. Doesn't matter. The wind is still at his back, the salt spray still flies over the rail, and he still enjoys the view.

Thomas Walton is editor of The Blade and a certified Parrothead.



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