A Pirate Looks At Fifty

Katharine Whittemore reviews 'A Pirate Looks at Fifty' by Jimmy Buffett

By Katharine Whittemore

Published June 15, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"Fun is about as good a habit as there is," writes Jimmy Buffett, and boy, he ought to know. Our author is well acquainted with bliss, chemical and otherwise. He "never gets tired of watching a wave breaking on the shore," for instance, and throws out section headings like "Blame It on the Bong." Here is a man who re(e?)fers to his Joseph Campbell tapes as "mental tiger balm." A dad whose daughter Sarah's first word is "Bob," as in Marley. A man who has pots of money. Someone who revels in flying the skies and fishing the seas. "Water is my real religion," this lapsed Catholic declares. His boat, for God's sake, is named the Euphoria.

OK, so "A Pirate Looks at Fifty" should have been half as long; heck, it should've been a magazine article. ("I don't know when to stop telling the story," he admits up front.) Knopf clearly wanted a follow-up to Buffett's engaging mystery "Where is Joe Merchant?" But this maker of more than 30 albums and writer of two bestsellers couldn't pick up the story. "Unsavory legumes and watery fiction are both offensive to the palate," is how he puts it. Hence this alternative effort. It's a meandering memoir/travelogue (47,000 Caribbean miles in three weeks) that needs a good bilge pump. Only a Parrothead could really care to learn, at length, what Jimmy puts in his flight bag. And while one fish-that-got-away story is fine, maybe even three, a dozen begs you to skim the pages like a waterbug.

Still, Buffett is ever-likable, even humble. "I don't have the talent to compete with the Great Serious Writers," he writes, meaning his heroes such as Eudora Welty and Gabriel Garcma Marquez. But so what? His prose extends from his lyrics; it's catchy, funny and offers up a decent image every once in a while. A stormy sea is "shaken like salad dressing." He's drawn to navigation because "it is both mysterious and explainable at the same time."

The best passages -- and there aren't nearly enough of them -- pivot on his youth. His evocation of the Mobile, Ala., Mardi Gras of his boyhood is fine, and so are the affectionate portraits of his Naval officer grandfather and shipyard designer father. My favorite parts of the book tack to Buffett's rough-hewed musical beginnings, especially a dive he played in his lackluster college days. The place was nicknamed "Vietnam, Miss.," since vets and soldiers from the nearby base lurked there. When Jimmy turns off the jukebox one night so he can perform, he's pelted with beer bottles. "I felt like a yellowtail snapper suddenly surrounded by a school of hungry sharks," Mr. Cheeseburger-in-Paradise recalls. Nice.

Sure the man rambles, but he knows how to have -- and winningly, even artfully, describe -- fun.


Katharine Whittemore

Katharine Whittemore is the editor of American Movie Classics magazine.

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