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Thread: Naked Came the Manatee

  1. #1
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    Default Naked Came the Manatee

    REVIEW OF “NAKED CAME THE MANATEE”

    In 1995 the folks at The Miami Herald got a very shrewd idea. They realized that since it just so happened that thirteen of the nation’s leading authors were all living in that same area around South Florida (several of them right in or around Miami), why not have them all write a serial novel together? They could have each author write a chapter and then pass the torch to the next author in line, who would write the next chapter and then give it to another author until all thirteen authors had got a turn in a veritable game of literary tag or hot potato. And so they did. This serial novel, titled Naked Came the Manatee (the title was a parody of the title of the novel Naked Came the Stranger), was originally published weekly, one chapter a week, in the Herald’s Sunday magazine, but it was such a huge hit that Neil Myron, the editor of Carl Hiaasen, one of the novel’s co-authors, bought the rights to the Naked Came the Manatee and got it published whole by Fawcett Books in arrangement with Putnam as a single, 200-page book, which became a New York Times bestseller. The thirteen authors of Naked Came the Manatee were—being proper about it and going in order of the book’s own official author attribution instead of going chapter-by-chapter—Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, Dave Barry, James W. Hall, Edna Buchanan, Les Standiford, Paul Levine, Brian Antoni, Tananarive Due, John Dufresne, Vicki Hendricks, Carolina Hospital, and Evelyn Mayerson.

    Manatee is a sort of comedic, surprise-based page-turner. The plot is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before but if I had to compare it to anything then I’d say it’s vaguely akin to what you might expect to get if the Zucker-Abrahams team (who made the film Airplane!, the TV show Police Squad, and the Naked Gun films based on that show) teamed up with the Coen brothers to write a novel spoofing Tom Clancy. Because of the constant amusing surprises and plot twists as well as the “game of literary tag or hot potato” style of co-authoring (which frequently leads to chapters ending on a cliffhanger), it’s hard to give a synopsis since revealing literally almost anything (at least beyond the events of the first chapter) is almost tantamount to a spoiler just on general principles. Yet with any luck I have tantalized you, and I must tantalize you further in order to entice you to read this zany masterpiece, and it is my duty anyway in reviewing the book to provide at least some rough summary of what the book is about.

    The titular manatee of the tale is a local sea cow whom the residents of the Miami area have nicknamed “Booger” (Dave Barry’s touch, of course). Near the novel’s start Booger, due to a boating mishap, ends up getting entangled in a cord wrapped around a crate delivered by Cubans to local criminals, and Booger carries the crate to land whereupon manatee and crate are found by a local centenarian environmentalist named Marion Williams. The crate turns out to contain what appears to be the head of Fidel Castro--and there is a large cash bounty out for the man’s head. The problem is, before long a second Castro head, just as seemingly real as the first, materializes elsewhere, and a third one appears as a prop for a movie being shot with local action star Dash Brandon, to whom dedicated reporter Britt Montero from co-author Edna Buchanan’s novels has been grudgingly assigned research assistant duty. Circumstances bring her together with Jake Lassiter from co-author Paul Levine’s novels and John Deal from co-author Les Standiford’s novels to try to get to the bottom of what’s going on. They are joined in their efforts by diver and diving equipment shopkeeper Fay Leonard.

    As if three equally seemingly genuine heads of Fidel Castro, the two stalker crooks from the boating mishap who originally had possession of one of them, and a mob boss named Big Joey G. who’s after the bounty didn’t complicate matters enough, several elements begin to cast doubt on Castro even being truly dead to begin with. For one thing, there are suggestions that Castro himself may be alive and scheming up the whole thing himself via fakery; there are certain ways he could profit by it. Then again, there is El Nunez, the Peanut Man, who wants to wrest power from Castro and take over Cuba himself: what better way could he aid his cause than by procuring the head of the dictator personally? And it is rumored that Castro has several decoys. Maybe one or more of the heads belong to them. And then there is that professional Castro impersonator, Mickey Schwartz….

    Well, I think you’re starting to get the idea. Stop and think about it: how many novels have you ever read with this much pure demented brilliance to their plot or premise? And that was just a synopsis. Reading the book itself is a whole other experience, like opening thirteen stockings in a row on Christmas morning, each brimming with all manner of little amusing surprises packed by different people with different ideas of what things to store. You’ll almost certainly like some people’s taste in what to pack for you more than other people’s but you’ll seldom be fully disappointed given the volume and variance involved and the constant fun in guessing what wonderful goodies are going to be in the next stocking—and knowing that you usually still have several more to go. And you’re always feeling the general atmosphere of merriment and good humor the whole time through anyway.

    One might expect the variance in styles between all the different authors to come across as jarringly uneven but instead it just, surprisingly, contributes to the lovable atmosphere of variety and that endearing wackiess which is enriched all the more with the occasional interstice of seriousness created by immensely great bits of writing which quiet the soul with their tone. Like I said, I liked the work of some of the authors better than the work of some of the others. My favorite chapters were Dave Barry’s, James W. Hall’s, Brian Antoni’s, Elmore Leonard’s, and most especially Carl Hiaasen’s, which practically merited a Pulitzer for Hiaasen pulling off the task of explaining and resolving the extreme and sundry convolutions of the plot and wrapping it all up with a nice, neat bow of explanatory resourcefulness. The only thing I don’t like about the novel is that while Hiaasen and, to a lesser extent, the other authors, do explain all the major mysteries and questions by the end, there were still a couple of minor tie-ins and little moments here and there that I don’t think were ever explained or remembered. For example, John Deal gets powerful and unmistakable déjà vu when he encounters Fay Leonard and assures himself that “it would come to him” but it never does, or at least for the reader in any truly clarifying way. (If this bit of confusion was meant as some sort of parody then it still doesn't work even on that level. It's just a minor annoyance however you look at it.) But these moments are minor, and few and far between, and it’s all about the crazy-unique page-turning experience anyway, which is indeed as I have described it.

    Well, after all that build-up I would almost be doing you a discourtesy if I didn’t give you a few free samples. Here is Dave Barry’s dynamite opening to the book:

    “Saturday night, Coconut Grove. It was the usual scene: thousands of people: not one of whom a normal person would call normal. There were the European tourists, getting off their big fume-belching buses, wearing their new jeans and their Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts, which they bought when their charter bus stopped in Orlando. They moved in chattering clots, following their flag-waving tour directors, lining up outside Planet Hollywood, checking out the wall where famous movie stars had made impressions of their hands in the cement squares, taking videos of each other putting their palms in the exact same spot where Bruce Willis once put his palm. Eventually they’d be admitted, past the velvet ropes, get an actual table, order an actual cheeseburger. This, truly, was America: eating cheeseburgers with other European tourists. Outside, the pulsating mutant throng was gearing up for the all-night street party, fashion bazaar, and freak show that the Grove becomes on weekend nights. Squadrons of young singles—bodies taut, hair perfect, clothes fashionable, minds empty—relentlessly roamed the CocoWalk Multi-Level Shopping and Pickup Complex, checking each other out, admiring themselves. Everywhere for blocks around, there were peddlers peddling, posers posing, gawkers gawking, drunks drinking, bums bumming, and hustlers hustling. Traffic had already congealed into a dense, noisy, confused mass of cruising tourist-bearing rickshaws, blatting Harleys, megawatt-booming cruise cars, and the pathetic, plaintively honking fools who actually thought they could drive through the Grove on a Saturday night. It was just getting started. It would go on until dawn, and beyond. Sitting on the porch of her snug, hurricane-weathered cottage nestled beneath a pair of massive ficus trees not three hundred yards away, Marion McAlister Williams listened to the distant din wafting toward her on the South Florida night. She could still hear pretty well, and she could think as well as anybodt—better than most, in fact. Not bad, when you considered that she was 102 years old, had come to Miami on a sailboat when Coconut Grove was a two-family, no-road hamlet, and Seminoles fished the bay. Not much fish to catch in there now, she thought bitterly, not much life at all in that poor overused, overdredged public sewer. Oh, she’d done what she could. She’d written that book, back in the forties, way ahead of her time; she’d told the world what the movers and shakers of South Florida were doing to the bay. The book got a lot of attention, won her a couple of big awards. After a while even the movers and shakers noticed, started inviting her to dinners, giving her plaques, calling her a South Florida Treasure, like she was some kind of endangered turtle. Then they’d pat her on her frail, stooped shoulders, send her off home, and go right back to screwing up the bay. From her porch, she could smell the water, close by to the southeast. She wondered, as she often did, what was going on out there, away from the lunacy of the Grove, in the dark.”

    And here are a few other samples from other chapters by other authors containing some of my other favorite non-spoilerific passages:

    “John Deal…was locked in a dead stall, part of an endless line of unmoving traffic, gripping and ungripping the wheel of the vehicle he had come to refer to as the ‘Hog.’ The Hog had begun its automotive life as a Cadillac Seville—but it had long since been transformed into a kind of gentleman’s El Camino, the passenger cabin cut in half, a tiny pickup bed created where the back seat and trunk had been. Not the sort of thing the folks at Cadillac would approve of, but it wasn’t Deal’s fault. He’d had to take it in payment on a construction project gone bad; now he couldn’t afford anything else…Deal noticed an old black man sitting on a backless kitchen chair outside the market, a cigarette burning between his fingers. His doleful gaze locked with Deal’s for a moment, then turned away. Deal felt as if he’d been marked, somehow: another Yuppie lemming, a guy so rich he could afford to fart around with a perfectly good Cadillac car, on his way through shantytown, headed for the mindless glitz up ahead. He could get out, Deal thought, leave the Hog where it was, take a seat beside the old guy, try to convince him otherwise. Explain how he was on his way to see his estranged wife, convince her to come back home again, how he was giving trouble with his finances, how we were all in this mess together, just like the Benetton ads said. The old guy could give him his blessing, they could wear colorful sweaters together and be friends. Sure. And pigs could sing the Hallelujah Chorus.”
    (from Chapter 2: “The Big Wet Sleep”, by Les Standiford)

    “Maybe Jake [Lassiter] had a really great story, Britt [Montero] thought hopefully. She loved this job. Every day was like Christmas morning. Full of surprises, stories unfolding, always the possibility that the big one would break today. So far, today had brought only two threatening letters and three obscene calls from faithful readers, while another had left chicken entrails on the hood of her new T-Bird in the News parking lot. She fervently hoped they were chicken entrails. Then came the assignment, followed by a major skirmish with the assistant city editor from hell. Still steamed about the assignment, she drove south through the soft night to meet Jake, half listening to the crackle of her portable police scanner. Enthralled city, tourism, and newspaper executives were eager to cooperate with the moviemakers on location.”
    (from Chapter 4: “The L.A. Connection”, by Edna Buchanan)

    “One of the virtues of age [was that] what you knew, you knew well. What you didn’t, no longer mattered.”
    (from Chapter 5: “The Old Woman and the Sea”, by James W. Hall)

    “He suffered from an overload of fun, sun, rum, sex, drugs, suffered from too much marination in gin-clear salt waters, his head like an olive in a martini. He felt trapped in a picture postcard, paradise-overdosed. He’d come to Havana to try to snap himself out of it, get a shot of reality…As they drove around the city, [he] got more and more depressed. I didn’t need this much reality, he thought.”
    (from Chapter 9: “South Beach Serenade”, by Brian Antoni)

    “‘I understand you’re upset, but don’t you see that the crime itself is a relief, you know, a release. It’s a regeneration. Before I killed, I was far more horrible than I am now, because I was pregnant with evil, with the idea of murder. And now the evil is done, gone, vanished. The idea of violence, the threat of violence, is always more frightening than the act of violence. Don’t you think?’”
    (from Chapter 11: “Where Are You Dying?” by John Dufresne)

    “‘I’m Franklin, with Baneful Clean-Up.’
    Baneful?’
    ‘The boss named it. He tried Pernicious Clean-Up in the Yellow Pages? Didn’t get any calls.’
    Joe said, ‘Hmmmm, how about Death Squad?’
    ‘That’s catchy,’ Franklin said, ‘but people might get the wrong idea. You know, that we doing the job ’stead of cleaning up after.’”
    (from Chapter 12: “The Odyssey”, by Elmore Leonard)

  2. #2
    (THOAT-wob-lur MAN-grove)
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    Default Re: Naked Came the Manatee

    I've decided to give this a bump because I want to encourage more people to read this masterpiece. (Come to think of it, I believe it's probably my favorite novel.) I mean, we are talking about a book written by a dream team of thirteen of the greatest/most respected authors in the world! It's like the Traveling Wilburys of prose. And I'm pretty sure the proceeds from book purchases go largely or maybe entirely to charity.

    P.S. Sorry if the review is a little more sloppily written than I'd like for it to be. I'm no Carl Hiassen myself.
    Last edited by Yahya Sulaiman; 13th November 2010 at 03:41.

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