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During a reading at the Los Angeles bookstore Skylight Books last month, Sherwood Schwartz, creator of the television series Gilligan’s Island, stood up to ask Tom Carson a question. It was about the afterword of Carson’s new book, Gilligan’s Wake, in which the author refers to Schwartz as il miglior fabbro.
“I want to know,” the 86-year-old TV auteur demanded, “if I’ve been complimented or insulted.”
Taken as a whole, Carson’s book does a bit of both. Gilligan’s Wake started out three years ago as nothing more than a smartass title. “It just popped into my head,” says Carson, 46, sitting in a wicker chair in the living room of his small South Arlington home. “I repeated it to my wife, and she laughed, and I laughed, and I suddenly woke up and said, ‘Maybe there’s something there.’”
A history and literature devotee with an irrepressible interest in pop culture, Carson was taken by the idea of unleashing a pack of television icons into the annals of history. And who better suited for the treatment than the castaways from the show that reportedly holds the record for most reruns? “What struck me about Gilligan’s Island is that whether you liked the show or not, it didn’t matter,” says Carson, who claims he can’t recall the plot of a single episode. “Those seven stereotypes are just imprinted on your brain.”
That’s the complimentary part. On the flip side, Carson suggests that the show’s marooned morons were so thinly drawn that he could almost totally reinvent them without anyone’s raising a remote in protest. “I knew right away that giving the life stories of these seven characters would let me talk about all sorts of emotions concerning what we used to call the American Century,” he says. “It’s very much my personalized history of the 20th century.”
Published last month by Picador, Gilligan’s Wake drops each castaway off somewhere along the timeline of the last hundred years. Ginger Grant lands a job at a nude-photo agency in early-’50s Hollywood and winds up sleeping with Sammy Davis Jr. at Sinatra’s place in Palm Springs. The skipper plies the waters of the South Pacific as an officer in PT-73 (of McHale’s Navy fame) and gets word that PT-109’s Jack Kennedy is lost at sea. Thurston Howell III’s future bride, Lovey, shows up in flapper garb, with a morphine habit and a supplier in Daisy Buchanan, the gal who broke Jay Gatsby’s heart.
But Carson never forgets where his characters came from. He was delighted when the manager of Skylight asked Schwartz to sign all the store’s copies of Gilligan’s Wake at the reading. “I was tickled that he was there,” says Carson. “During the Q&A, he kept exercising his royal prerogative to jump in.”
And Carson isn’t kidding with that il miglior fabbro stuff, either. Those who recall their high-school English will recognize the phrase as what T.S. Eliot, by way of Dante, called Ezra Pound in the dedication to The Waste Land: “the better maker.”
A diplomat’s son raised in West Africa and Europe, Carson got acquainted with his ancestral homeland from afar. “You develop a real fascination and longing for this mysterious country that you don’t know anything about,” he says. As a kid, Carson devoured books on American history. “The majority of people can and do get through their lives without thinking about the American Revolution,” he says. “That just baffles me.”
Carson’s father had a master’s degree in history, and the family’s dinner-table discussions often turned to history and politics. “By the time I got back to the States,” Carson says, “I had gotten all the sophistication I could stand.”
That was in 1968, when the author was 12 years old and the United States was in upheaval. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were shot, race riots burned through the country’s downtowns, and the Tet Offensive sent tens of thousands of anti-war protesters into the streets. On top of the political turmoil, Carson had to contend with American pop-culture shock. “I was more than a little bit intimidated by how much of it was available,” he says. “It felt like an emergency education, like anybody who had grown up in the States had access to this massive secret code that I didn’t know.
“My first reaction was snobbery,” he continues. “It was very much the attitude of the time. You weren’t supposed to take this stuff seriously. This was when TV was still considered this vast wasteland.”
Carson retreated into the American counterculture. On the day he graduated from Princeton University, in 1979, he caught a bus to New York. He soon began writing reviews of punk albums for the Village Voice at night while temping during the day.
It was punk that changed Carson’s mind about TV. “The Ramones weren’t alienated from the trashy mainstream culture
of the ’60s,” he says. “They found meaning in it and asserted their identity though claiming that stuff.”
Carson began tuning in to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi while he wrote his music reviews. Soon enough, the shows began to stick. “The way I grew up means that American culture has a certain mystical quality that I don’t think I can shake off,” he says. “I don’t know that I want to shake it off.” In 1981, he wrote a piece for the Voice praising Magnum, P.I. He saw The A-Team as “a terrific tongue-in-cheek cartoon.”
After he was passed over for a staff job at the Voice, Carson moved to California in the mid-’80s and found work at the LA Weekly (where he met his future wife, Washington City Paper film critic Arion Berger). When the Rodney King verdict incited rioting in L.A. in 1992, Carson was dispatched to his living room to watch the tube. “My brother and sister reporters at the Weekly were running around dodging stray bullets,” he remembers. “But 90 percent of Angelenos experienced the riots on TV, so it wasn’t a negligible part of the story.”
For Carson, the 24-hour news coverage of the riots constituted a case study in American sociology. Local stations gave more airtime to the few burning buildings in Hollywood than to the dozens ablaze in South Central. “All these news twinkies were suddenly in the middle of the most devastating story,” says Carson. “People were petrified that these rioters would head for Beverly Hills. And you’d weep with laughter at these news anchors trying to maintain their nonexistent dignity.”
By the time he arrived in Washington, in the mid-’90s, Carson had already developed the habit of larding his copy with fantasy sequences. In 1995, he applied the technique to a Voice piece about the brouhaha over the Enola Gay exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum. The original display was canceled after coming under fire from veterans and conservatives, who said it overdramatized Japanese suffering and glossed over Japanese atrocities committed during World War II.
Writing in the afterglow of the Republican Revolution, Carson had then-California Congressman Bob Dornan steal the Enola Gay from the museum and take off from Independence Avenue. “The flight crew included Newt Gingrich and Strom Thurmond, and I had O.J. Simpson in there because, of course, every bombing crew needs a token black guy, and he was in the news at the time,” Carson says. The gang circled the globe, arguing over where to drop a bomb.
“It just got wilder and wilder and wilder,” recalls Carson.
Carson didn’t think of writing fiction in a similar style until Gilligan’s Wake. Now a TV and film critic for Esquire, he had long seen his predilection for fantasy-meets-reality prose as too silly for a literary novel. During the mid-’90s, he wrote roughly half of a serious novel about growing up during the Cold War before scrapping it in frustration.
“I was trying to write a book that fit my definition of a great modern novel, which is something like Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum,” he recalls. “It took a long time to realize that I wasn’t that kind of writer. Coming at it all obliquely, from an absurd starting point, was liberating. I got to go off into all these fantasies and sideshows.”
Gilligan’s Wake is also a departure from Carson’s only other published novel, a sketch of alienated suburban youth called Twisted Kicks. Published by the tiny Entwhistle Books in 1981 (and subsequently translated for a German edition), it has sold, by Carson’s estimation, a couple of thousand copies. The book is still available in stores, but the author wishes it would go out of print. “It’s overwrought and melodramatic,” he says. “It’s a kind of silly book, really. Unintentionally silly.”
In Gilligan’s Wake, by contrast, the silliness is all intentional. Indeed, the novel grows more outlandish with each turn of the page. In the chapter devoted to Mary Ann Summers, for example, the future S.S. Minnow passenger is found studying at the Sorbonne. We soon overhear Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir conversing outside a cafe, with Sartre speaking in garbled lyrics from the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”in French. Upon returning to the United States, Mary Ann discovers that her Kansas hometown has disappeared and that, as the “personification of America,” she’s been endowed with renewable virginity.
“If you decide you’re going to write a book telling the fantasy autobiographies of the future castaways of Gilligan’s Island, you don’t scale back and say, ‘I better keep this reasonable,’” Carson says. “People who think it’s a ridiculous idea are going to think it’s a ridiculous idea no matter how sane I try to make it. So why not just do it the way I want?”
So far, the strategy has worked: Carson has done just a few book readings, in Washington, Los Angeles, and New York, but Gilligan’s Wake has received reviews in Entertainment Weekly, the Washington Post Book World, the New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Denver Post, and other publications taken with the novelty of the book’s premise. The reviews have been mostly favorable, through some critics have bristled at Carson’s jumbling of high- and lowbrow culture. “Gilligan’s Wake is not as good as Finnegans Wake,” quipped David Kelly in the New York Times, “but it’s better than Gilligan’s Island.”
“It’s amusing to see the literary-academic contingent getting fairly sniffy at my presumptuousness in applying a literary frame of reference to something as silly as a TV sitcom,” Carson says. “And on the flip side, you have these sort of pophead reviewers who are slightly baffled that I want to bring in all this obtrusive literary dimension.”
Carson, obviously, got over such hang-ups decades ago. “Television was the great gift to 20th-century intellectuals, because it gave them something they could look down on with an absolutely clear conscience,” he says “It’s still hard to give that up. It’s easier to go on expressing this reflexive contempt than it is to start thinking about it. It’s difficult to start taking it seriously and to study what it means to peopleand to understand you aren’t exempt.” CP