May 2006

Colleen Mondor

fiction

Whale Season by N.M. Kelby

If I was writing this review just for people who live in Florida then I would say that Whale Season is about every town in the central part of the state with tacky shopping centers, Wal-marts, tourist traps and one church too many. It is certainly like the area I grew up in, from its titty bar to its tourist attraction with an entrance gate that is “a twelve-foot-high alligator head, complete with an assortment of pointy teeth and a long red tongue.” Author N.M. Kelby isn’t fooling any of us who know with that description -- she stole it from Gatorland (proudly billing itself as “Florida’s best half-day attraction”) and I have a picture from my last trip home to prove it. But I digress.

After reading both of Kelby’s earlier books and falling madly in love with them, I was very interested to see what she did with this new lighter fare. Admittedly, Whale Season is a story that stars a serial killer, but we are the state of “Old Sparky” and so it seems appropriate that a madman dressed as Jesus who brings down some serious salvation in his spare time would figure highly in the plot. This is a Florida book after all. (It’s our literary tradition to be crazy and no one is taking that away from us.) But Kelby also knows people and she doesn’t go over the edge with her story -- she doesn’t make it too many shades of wacky and thus leave the reader laughing in a confused and frustrated sort of way. The traveling serial killer angle is only one of the things happening in the small town of Whale Harbor and in the end all he does is set events in motion. It is what everyone else does with those events, how they cope, who they turn to, and what they accomplish, that really makes the story sing.

Whale Harbor is like a lot of towns in Florida in that they are trying to get the tourists (like everywhere else in the Sunshine State they are desperate to get Mickey’s leftovers), but there’s really not enough happening locally to lure folks off the interstate. (See the John Sayles movie Sunshine State for more insight into this common problem and the nutty solutions it causes.) They’ve got the ticky tacky part down cold, but even strip joints doubling as family entertainment (for the parents, not the children) can do only so much for the local economy. It’s a town that is just barely hanging on filled with a lot of people who like where they live but know they are in some small sort of trouble. On every level, something needs to happen in Whale Harbor; something needs to make Leon and Dagmar reconcile and maybe get Dagmar and Jimmy Ray to finally admit the true nature of their relationship, push Carlotta to give Leon the boot and likewise push Sheriff Trot Jeeter to ask Carlotta out, and would somebody please explain to Sam that he is not likely to play football again.

Everything is so close to happening in Whale Harbor, that even though it takes a knife-wielding Jesus to urge everyone along the reader doesn’t mind. “Jesus” is not a hero, don’t look for serial killer sympathy here, but he is a rather strange and silly man (right up until he brings on his nasty “salvation”). Whale Harbor is the perfect place to attract this particular brand of insanity -- after all it has one of everybody else already. And crazy does attract crazy, which if you live in Florida explains a lot.

Whale Season's been compared to the works of Carl Hiassen due to her pitch perfect descriptions of the state and its visitors (“But that’s the way it is in Florida. It’s paradise. The visitors want fun. That’s what they pay for. They’re gonna have fun if it kills them. Or you. Or both.”). Kelby has clearly done the appropriate amount of reading John D. Macdonald. She had me with Carl but when I sensed John D. in the mix I was in love. I swear, if there had been Harry Crews here as well I might have lost my mind entirely -- too much Florida goodness for one former beach girl to handle.

It would be easy for me to say that Floridians need to read this book, but that’s really a no-brainer. The real draw should be for all readers who enjoy their fiction with heavy dose of sarcasm but want it balanced with some honest compassion and affection. Kelby is not making fun here; she is just giving the twisted view of the state and its residents that everyone who lives down there knows is true. The one thing I’ve always wondered, and Kelby clearly understands, is if the folks who live in Florida are quirky on their own or if the relentless flow of tourists makes them that way. It’s hard to be sane all the time when you see people dragging their small children around Disney World with leashes, all the while screaming, “We are here so you can have fun so you better stop crying and start having a good time!” (True story, swear to God.) Whale Season is a slice of how it is, with some great stories, a “can they get the crazy guy in time” storyline and no small amount of grown-up tenderness. Kelby has now proven she can write serious literature and seriously funny literature. Can’t wait to see what she brings to the table next.

Whale Season by N.M. Kelby
Shaye Areheart Books
ISBN 0307336778
286 pages