Fiction: “Gilligan’s Wake” by Tom Carson

Gilligans-Wake-BA conversation from about two weeks ago:

Me: I really want to finish this book I’m reading, but I’ve been too busy.
Dad: What’re you reading?
Me: Gilligan’s Wake.
Dad: Wow. That’s James Joyce, isn’t it?
Me: No, Tom Carson. You’re thinking of Finnegan’s Wake.
Dad: No, I … wait a minute. Did you say “GILLIGAN”?

Yes, I had said Gilligan. As in Gilligan, the Skipper too, the millionaire and his wife, the movie star, and the rest. But it’s not what you think it’s going to be.

I picked up Gilligan’s Wake about — oh wow, ten years ago. Thanks, GoodReads! But I read a blurb about it in Entertainment Weekly, and it didn’t go into the plot much. Just said it was told a story using the characters from the TV Show, and it was a very well-written work. I don’t know about you, but I was addicted to Gilligan’s Island. Back when TNT didn’t really have a tagline or a purpose, it would show a little of everything: Gilligan’s Island from ten to eleven in the morning, I distinctly remember it would show The Muppet Show from 6:00 to 6:30 (which would tick my mother off to no end, because she’d want to watch the news but when we did put it on so she could see the weather, even twenty years ago she’d still find something to do just as the weather report came on, leaving my sister, my father and myself to shrug to ourselves and change the channel, only to have my mother return just as Dad began impersonating the Swedish Chef, and it’d somehow be our fault that she missed the weather. Dear Mom: a of all, when you say you want to watch the weather, stay in the living room and actually watch the weather. And b of all, at least back then we weren’t changing the channel to The Simpsons).

Anyway. Addicted to Gilligan’s Island. And for no apparent reason, too. I mean, it was funny, but I think if I tried to watch it now, I’d scratch my head.

I do remember having a horrible crush on The Professor. He’s probably the reason I enjoy looking at men wearing slightly-unbuttoned white shirts. Plus, he was smart, but not too smart. He could turn a coconut into a radio, but he couldn’t cut down trees to repair the Minnow. See also: the reason why I love Joey Tribbiani. Street smart, but incredibly dumb.

Okay, this is not what I wanted to talk about. So anyway, my childhood love for Gilligan’s Island was the impetus behind me buying the book. And this is the third time I’ve read this book. I think I reached for it this year as part of my whole I’m Turning Thirty Nostalgia trip thing I’ve been unwittingly doing.

To discuss this title, I have to talk about the structure a little bit. Because there’s a story, but there are also individual stories, and an underlying theme tying almost everything together. The best literary term I can use to describe it is that this book is a form of literary surrealism. I’d say it’s similar in style to Jitterbug Perfume, but it’s not really.

The book is divided into seven parts. Each part is told by a different character. Part One, “This Tiny Ship,” is narrated by Gilligan. Except he doesn’t know he’s Gilligan; he thinks he’s Maynard G. Krebs, who was played by Bob Denver pre-Island. Maynard is partying in the Haight with his girlfriend Suze when he gets hit on the head and ends up in a mental hospital in Rochester, Minnesota. His doctor, Dr. F Troop Kildare, is trying to convince him he’s Gilligan. In the middle of his electroshock therapy, the chapter ends and “The Skipper’s Tale” begins. The Skipper, before he ran a charter out of Honolulu, piloted a U-Boat in the Pacific Theatre with his pals McHale and John F. Kennedy. One night, something gets tangled up in their motor, and the Skipper gets beached. While he’s waiting for the sun to come up so he can see what the “black dot in their wake” was, he remembers having to turn a family away from a charter in Miami because clearly they were too poor. The son desperately wanted to go on the ocean, and to spare the father’s embarrassment, the Skipper was kind of a dick. When the sun rises and the dream ends, the Skipper sees that the thing that was tangled was the charred remains of a dead Japanese soldier.

Mr. Howell talks about his days on Wall Street, and recommending Alger Hiss for the Secretary of Agriculture position, not completely understanding that Hiss was a Communist. He marries Lovey because he loves her, but he knows she doesn’t love him back. His son becomes depressed after he catches his girlfriend, Susanne, with their history professor. And Mr. Howell falls in love with reading comic books about how great the U.S. Army’s doing in Korea and Guatemala.

Lovey Howell — before she became Lovey Howell — was a contemporary of Daisy Buchanan, and they palled around Long Island and Provincetown, doing morphine and trying to escape their lives. Lovey’s mother was a suffragette, and imprisoned at Occoquan Prison, which was an embarrassment for Lovey. When Lovey finally leaves Daisy to return home, she finds her mother has died. She immediately goes to Thurston to marry him.

Ginger Grant leaves Alabam’-Don’t-Give-A-Damn for the bright hills of Hollywood and becomes a pin-up artiste along with Miss Bettie Page. She trades her body for ever better film roles, including something called Every Girl is an Island, directed by a Y. Avery Willingham. She leaves her pornography producer and takes up with her agent, who brings her (and her even more out-there sister, Suzanna) to a party put on by Frank Sinatra. John F. Kennedy is there, as well as Sammy Davis, Jr. Ginger sleeps with Sammy, even after her mother told her the one thing she didn’t want her daughter to do was sleep with a black man. After a not-that-racist remark slips out, Sammy kicks her out on her gorgeous behind. She returns to L.A., and then ends up on that damned island.

The Professor, meanwhile, was working with the Nuclear Commission in Los Alamos, and he unwittingly was the one who decided that Nagasaki should be the second city bombed. His efficiency in solving the problem (Pin The Atomic Bomb On the City, essentially) leads him to a shadow government, which controls all historical events leading up to the fiftieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. In his personal life, “Professor X” is so egotistical and vain, he believes his gift to humanity is to sleep with less perfect creatures, both male and female.

Finally, there’s Mary Ann from Russell, Kansas, whose father died at Iwo Jima and her town is an American Brigadoon. She goes to the Sorbonne for a summer semester and falls into a relationship with Jean-Luc Godard, who calls her the personification of America. One of her main plot points is that after she sleeps with Jean-Luc, her virginity (read: innocence) returns. And because that makes her different, she cannot return to her idyllic hometown. So she becomes a translator party girl for the UN and when she asks her roommate, Susan, how she lost her virginity, the underlying story comes out.

Because throughout all seven of these stories, we’re slowly being told another. The conceit is that the … I don’t want to use “author,” because I don’t think it’s Tom Carson’s personal story he’s trying to work through, but the symbol for the authorial intent — anyway, the underlying voice is trying to work through something. The basics are this: Gil Egan, son of one of the heroes of Iwo Jima, grew up in awe of his father Jack. When Jack left the Army, he was brought into the CIA, which made the family live all across Europe. Little Gil grew up jealous of the normal American childhood experience. When the family finally returned to Washington, Gil fell in love with his classmate, Susan. And it was more than just love: it wasn’t an obsession, but he loved her because she was able to grow up American, with that entire experience. Susan began to feel pressured (and this is still left up in the air somewhat), but she ends up sleeping with her history professor as a tiny act of rebellion. Gil doesn’t learn about it until he goes looking for Susan on the day his father is dying in a hospital, and finds the professor holding Susan’s topless breasts.

That incident is what pervades throughout all seven stories: in each chapter, there is an edition of Susan, a sleazy professor figure, Maxwell House coffee, and a bastardization of “A Bicycle Built For Two.” There is also a version of Gilligan: whether it be Algligni, one of the sailors on the Skipper’s boat, or the Professor’s Laggilin pills, or the Lili Gang that is terrorizing Mary Ann’s Parisian summer.

But what you don’t start to realize until you’re reading Mary Ann’s story is that this isn’t just a love song to a dead father (the “Wake”) or an homage to one of the most pervasive television comedies of all time. It’s also a tribute to the American Century, as seen through the eyes of seven archetypes:

Otherwise, you can probably see how it is from wherever you are. Too many for bridge, too few for football, and not much I care to say about any of them except Ging. Little boy and fat man; Mr. Magoo. The old dame with the empty spaces in her eyes that youth and then morphine once filled in, and a three-toed sloth in search of a mirror. It all got boring pretty fast.

If we were a medieval morality play, our names would be Youth, Clumsiness, Wealth, Cowardice, Hubba-Hubba, and Self-Love. Plus I, Mary-Ann, who am or may be all these things and more and yet am still and forever virgin… [333]

Whether you loved Gilligan’s Island or not, I encourage everyone to read this book. It is very dense, and rife with references, both pop-culture and historical. While it can be depressing at times (or maybe just my love of the Professor made that chapter difficult to read), it is definitely worth getting through.

The biggest take-away and the best sentiment in the entire book are the last few paragraphs, and I refuse to quote them here, because I don’t want to spoil the ending. I guess the last thing I can say about Gilligan’s Wake is that, underneath all the trappings of putting beloved characters into historical situations and trying to figure out what was going on with Susan and the Professor, the book acts as a goodbye to the twentieth century and a call-to-arms on making sure the twenty-first continues to move us forward into brighter and greener pastures.

Grade for Gilligan’s Wake: 4 stars

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2 thoughts on “Fiction: “Gilligan’s Wake” by Tom Carson

    • Alaina ‘likes’ this comment.

      Alaina ‘likes’ this comment because Alaina can’t express in actual words how humbled and flattered she is that the author of one of her favorite books not only read her silly little blog in her silly little corner of the internet, but that the author liked her review of his book enough to tell her so.

      Alaina now runs away because she never learned how to act like a normal person around people she looks up to, so please forgive this poor excuse for a thank-you-note.

      Thank you, Mr. Carson. I love your book; I have read it many times: I will read it again, and will continue to recommend it to others. Thank you for your book, and for your comment; it meant the world to me.

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