Tidewater Review - May 2009
Off to Bahama
Bahama Burnout by Don Bruns. Oceanview Publishing. 242 pages. $24.95.
The marketing people for tourism to the Bahamas will hate the impression readers will take away from this tale of shenanigans in the tropics.
Cruise ships unload hordes of tourists to admire the British orderliness and colorful decorum under the languor of the trade winds, all regulated for maximum gentility. Even the traffic cops are camera-worthy in crisp uniforms and choreographed gestures.
Don’t believe a bit of it, Bruns writes in this bitter, ugly story of drugs, booze, poverty and greed. Throw in musicians and big money and you have the recipe for disaster. It all revolves around a seedy, burned-out writer, a guy who has covered the rock and roll scene for years and knows all the backstories behind the screaming fans and scheming promoters.
His name is Mick Severs, and he’s in Nassau to do a story on the renovation of a recording studio, legendary for producing hit albums, after a terrible fire two years earlier. Highland Studio is run by his old friend Britt, the best sound engineer in the business. A year earlier, Britt hired his old friend, Baron, to engineer an album for the group “Johnny run.” The album tanked, but the band is back to record a new album. This time Britt is on the soundboard, and so far the results point to a winner.
Everybody should be mellow - the rebuilt studio is better than the old one, clients are beginning to come back, what’s not to like?
For one thing, the local cops have never figured out who set the fire two years ago. Worse, they never were able to identity the body of a young man who died in the fire. And strange things keep happening at the studio. A completed track was erased overnight, and Britt and his wife have the only keys to the building. A valuable bass guitar is stolen from Britt’s collection of instruments and turns up on the wall of a downtown bar. Pictures fall off the walls when the place is supposedly empty. A voodoo doll appears on the pillow of the writer’s hotel room.
It’s not only the studio that’s creepy. It’s located on the edge of Nassau, with opulent hotels and casinos across the water in front, an alley of shacks and youth gangs in the studio’s back yard. Next door is a shabby house inhabited by a widow, Etta May, and her deranged son. Their front yard is decorated with a rusty Cadillac that Etta May is eager to sell. She claims it was a gift to her from Elvis.
Etta May hates everybody, including her afflicted son, especially when he cadges dope from the musicians who come to the studio. He invites them to sit with him in the Caddy and smoke. All the characters in the book seem to have an endless supply – the good guys as well as the scoundrels.
The reader must judge how much of this depravity is normal in the music business. When the band’s manager is killed and propped up in the Caddy, it’s hard to get a professional investigation. A cop car was parked beside the old relic at the time of the murder and the cop was in the house next door, “courting” Etta May. And soon, one of the musicians is offed and the writer is threatened.
The plot is convoluted, jumping from a convent with a few aging nuns to a beautiful brown bartender/waitress who enjoys the attention of the writer. Noxious, ugly American tourists, ghostly visits by a horribly scarred man and advice from an Obiah priest are mixed in with the scent of weed, rum and sweat.
It all gets sorted out in the end – wait a minute... The last page, the very last paragraph, is unsettling enough to make the reader feel as clueless as the cops.
Even discounting the plot, the book definitely doesn’t do much to recommend a vacation in the Bahamas.
One is tempted to compare the subject and pace of the book to a reflection of its setting – the mindless thump, thump of rock and roll.
Letters from the Tides: The Middle Sixties by Russ Orme. 161 pages, $20.
Russ Orme is back at his metaphysical cracker barrel again, chortling over small town pranks, high school hijinks and unforgettable characters in and around his boyhood home in Denton, a place he calls by various terms of endearment - usually “the golden gate.” The author revives tales about people and things he introduced in the first book of his memoirs, The Raymond Chronicles, that traced the highlights of his childhood and early adolescence to the age of 17
This new volume covers the chapter of his life from the time he finished high school in Denton, studied at the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore for one year and goofed off for his second year, his enlistment and service in the Coast Guard and his first marriage. Most of these life-altering stages happened, as the book title states, in the mid-’60s. Except for only faint reference to the national trauma of that era, the Vietnam War, the military draft and the assassination of a president are largely ignored.
Instead, the reader is treated to a quasi-Huck Finn existence on the Choptank instead of the Mississippi, of fishing trips on his dad’s boat, The Rambler, for a macho contest with charter boats from Tilghman Island to see which home port could claim the rockfish title. The Rambler’s docking slip was in Oxford, but Denton was home base for Orme Sr., the boat’s owner, and Orme Jr., the boat captain from about age 13 while his father’s cronies tended to the fishing and the supply of National Bohemian, aka “Natty Bo.”
The sudsy brew played a significant role in Orme’s adventures when he was still in high school, the scene of the age-old piling the car with one’s buddies on Friday nights and cruising the back roads for the thrill of dodging patrolling State Police.
Not all the family stories involve the author. He also relates favorite yarns that he admits may or may not have been embellished with decades of telling. One described the panic of his mother and aunt as young women in a thunderstorm, with near homicidal results. In another tale he snorts with glee over his father and a cohort accompanying two officious and arrogant visitors on a memorable coon hunt that lasted nearly 24 hours and resulted in infractions of the law by the “experts.”
Adolescent cruelty lasts longer than the teen years, as illustrated in the story of depositing a water skier in the river in a patch of dumped offal. The victim of the prank was left to wallow in chicken parts and intestines. That got a very big laugh.
In truth, some of the escapades are - well, maybe you had to be there to experience what Orme describes as falling over with mirth.
Despite a youth largely marked by irresponsibility, according to his account of it, Orme grew up to work as a graphic arts technician for National Geographic Magazine for 20 years.
It will be interesting to see where Orme’s next book takes him. Presumably he has run out of the youthful capers and will delve into more sober eras in his long autobiographical accounts. He’s already working on the next book, covering the span of 1965 to the early 1970s.
For a selective historical impression of small town life in the last half of the last century, Orme’s memoirs will strike familiar chords.