Like a piece of driftwood embedded in the seashore, the gnarled image of Gregorio Fuentes is etched in the mind. Fuentes is the Cuban fisherman who was the subject of Ernest Hemingway’s epic The Old Man and the Sea.
Several years ago, singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett was part of a group assembled by Margaux Hemingway to produce a documentary retracing the steps of Papa Hemingway in Cuba. Although the project gave Buffett the chance to meet Fuentes and sing “Havana Daydreaming” in the La Bodeguita del Medio bar in Havana (a legendary haunt of Fidel Castro and Hemingway), the documentary was never released and no one was paid.
But Buffett’s tango with Fuentes is priceless.
The meeting between the songwriter and the fisherman is the emotional apex of Tales From Margaritaville (Fictional Facts and Factional Fiction) ($16.95, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), Buffett’s debut book ofshort stories. A smooth sailing book of infinite imagination, Tales From Margaritaville hit No. 14 on the Oct. 22 New York Times best-seller list. (Frankly, Buffett hasn’t done that well with a record in a long time.)
Of the leather-faced Fuentes, Buffett writes, “The story of his life was in his eyes and his hands. . . . I asked the old man if Papa Hemingway had left him any mementos, thinking he might have a classic rod or reel or cherished photos. He took a long draw on the cigar, looked up at the sun, and patted his heart with his hand.”
Fuentes then told Buffett how John Sturges, the original director of the film “The Old Man and the Sea,” was fired while the old man was trout fishing with Hemingway in Argentina. The minute they heard the news, they hopped a plane to Cuba. Hemingway brought along two pistols and a bottle of rum. His aim was to shoot the new director.
Needless to say, Sturges was rehired.
Buffett was in Chicago earlier this month to promote Tales From Margaritaville and to sing the national anthem at the Cubs’ first playoff game – not necessarily in that order. “Talking to that old man was one of the most memorable things in my life,” Buffett said. “I went straight back to my room in Havana and wrote the story.”
The meeting also was of great import because Fuentes reminded Buffett of his grandfather, who was raised in Nova Scotia and migrated south on a whaling ship when he was 16. He didn’t return home to settle down until he was 85.
“It’s funny, I just sent my parents (Loraine (Peets) and James Delaney) up to Nova Scotia for a trip,” Buffett said. “But the Hallicraft shortwave (one of the few possessions of the football coach from Buffett’s `Off To See the Lizard’ short story included in the book) I put in Romeo Fleming’s house – I remember that from my grandmother, because he would send messages to her. As a kid, I would go into a room and hear my grandfather’s voice over the radio somewhere off of Rio de Janeiro. That got me going. I knew I had that spirit. He was out there in this big world, and when he came home, he’d make me get my charts and maps out.
“Yeah, I think he’d like this book.”
Tales From Margaritaville was born of a suggestion from Bonnie Ingber, Buffett’s editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, where Buffett and his daughter, Savannah Jane, collaborated on The Jolly Mon, a popular children’s book. (The sequel, Trouble Dolls, is scheduled for a spring release.) Buffett had considered writing a detective novel called The Black Bean Experience, but Ingber suggested he first document his colorfulshort stories.
Tales From Margaritaville is divided into three sections. The first portion of the book deals with Margaritaville as a state of mind. Buffett takes the reader through assorted fictitious locations along the Gulf of Mexico, such as Heat Wave on the island of Snake Bite Key. The middle section of the book deals with Buffett’s persona as a performer in imaginary settings, while the last third consists of true accounts of Buffett’s life on the sea.
“But what got me going on the whole project was going back and reading the story about Gregorio Fuentes,” Buffett said. “It was the one story I had a core for.”
Buffett found more latitude in writing stories than writing songs. “I love to read short stories, because they’re like a companion,” he said. “It’s something you pick up, read, and put down. You don’t have to get into a whole novel. That’s the magic of short stories. But everybody says it’s the most difficult prose to write, because you have to be so structured. I’ve found that true on one side, but on the other side, I’ve found it easier to come from song structure – three verses, two choruses – where you really have to utilize your words to get a point across. To go from that style of writing to writingshort stories, you’ve got more room to work with. So I just looked at them as big songs.”
As an author, Buffett hasn’t forgotten the rhythm and nuance of a good song. “Off To See the Lizard” comes off as a calypso-like tribute to whimsical football traditions like those of Northwestern University or more recently, Southern Methodist University. In the story, ex-Notre Dame linebacker Romeo Fleming becomes interim head football coach of the Heat Wave High Lizards, the only integrated team in the state. Character names roll off the tongue (Aurora and Boring Alice Porter and a black tailback named Willett Rainer Snow), and sentences display a rub-a-dub roll. Here’s Fleming introducing the football team to its new mascot, a vegetarian iguana:
“This is Hector – your new mascot. I was in a tight spot once, and he was the only friend I had. He is a good-luck charm. In the ancient civilizations and mythologies of the world, the lizard is a symbol of luck and power. In Australia, they are gods. In Heat Wave, we are only looking for a winning season. We will play football and enjoy it. It is not a matter of life and death.” Coach Fleming procedes to screen “Godzilla” as a motivational film.
The Heat Wave High Lizards finally eke out a victory on a fumble triggered by a clever banner that Boring Alice brought to the game.
Buffett explained, “I loved that period of my life and the way sports played that way in (his native) Alabama. I hope I don’t get anybody in trouble for this, but when Patrick Ewing played (basketball) for Georgetown, they played Villanova. Ewing was a great basketball player, but Villanova fans put a sign up, `Patrick Ewing cannot read this sign.’ (Georgetown head coach) John Thompson got incensed and had them take the sign down. I took that piece and put it my story. That was the focal point of the story. I wanted to get there. It was a real attempt to get aboriginal background into a football game in racially prejudiced Alabama and get to that point.
“And to do that in a short story and make it flow – that’s the hard part. You have to make it like a song, take it up and down, and while you’re doing that, you have to weave characters in there.”
Buffett did most of the heavy writing for Tales From Margaritaville while sequestered last spring on his farm outside Key West, Fla. As is the case with most residents of “The Last Resort,” Buffett found discipline to be a bit of a problem.
“I don’t know how much writing all those people who live in Key West do,” Buffett said. “As for me, I’m way past my drinking and hanging out days down there, but I’ll get up and go row my boat in the morning, write for a couple of hours and go to lunch. Then, I’ll go to the marine supply store and then, `Hey, it looks like a good day to go fishing.’ The next thing you know, the day’s gone. So, I packed it up and moved to my farm. I sat there by myself and wrote.”
This spring and summer, Buffett also had to attend to his Class A baseball team, the Miami Miracle, of which he and actor Bill Murray are co-owners. A group of men in need of many miracles, the team finished last in each half of their split season. They went 0-6 in games played at Key West.
“One night Savannah and I set up a DX-7 (keyboards) and a little Roland amp,” he said. “The umpire made such a rotten call on my team. So I got him bad. I was playing hot-rod sounds and little fart sounds. It distressed the hell out of him. He came over and sent word up for the organ player to stop. I said, `I won’t, because I own the team!’ The crowd went crazy.”
Maybe that story will be in Buffett’s next book.
“You know, I’ve always been a big David Niven fan, both in lifestyle and as an artist,” Buffett said. “He was an actor, a singer and an accomplished writer. But he only covered two (autobiographical) books. The Moon’s a Balloon covered his life in his mid-40s and Bring on the Empty Horses covered his 70s. He told great stories about good experiences at 40, and in his 70s, he told some real good s- -t. That’s what I want to do. I’ll tell a lot more stuff at 70, when people are dead, or proud to have been as bad as they were.”
- Chicago Sun-Times, October 29, 1989