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Sit Right Back and You’ll Hear a Tale

Was Lovey a ciggie-smoking ‘20s flapper before marrying Thurston Howell III? Could the Professor actually have been the fiendish force behind every nefarious conspiracy of the past half-century? And did Ginger really pay the rent doing modeling shoots with pinup queen Bettie Page before hitting it big as a “mooooovie star?” These aren’t the ruminations of a coffee-addled slacker, but the basis for the seven tales that make up Tom Carson’s literary fantasia of a novel, “Gilligan’s Wake,” a heady brew of literary and pop culture allusion loosely anchored to the seven “Gilligan’s Island” castaways (the first character is even referred to once as Maynard Krebs, Bob Denver’s pre-Gilligan beatnik persona in “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis”). The critical accolades are rolling in, but forget that--more importantly, “Gilligan’s Island” creator Sherwood Schwartz approves. Herewith, the author, a former LA Weekly and current Esquire columnist, explains whether he comes to bury culture or to praise it.

Your book title references a TV show you admit only passing familiarity with, plus a literary masterpiece you haven’t completely read. Discuss.

What I said was I never had much attachment for “Gilligan’s Island.” Even if you can’t recall a single episode, those seven characters are branded into your brain. [As for] “Finnegans Wake” [by James Joyce], besides liking the collision of the high priest of literature with this notoriously inane ‘60s sitcom, I had read enough of “Finnegans Wake” to know that Joyce was trying to dramatize the cycles of history through one man’s unconscious in one night of sleep. In our imaginations in the 20th century, history and pop culture and characters from our favorite novels do sort of get mulched together. I could imagine that the Skipper was in the PT boats during WWII with the young JFK and McHale from “McHale’s Navy.” Our collective memory makes these things part of the same emotional landscape.

If the book sells, would that say good things about American literary culture or does it sound the death knell?

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[Laughs.] I would love to say death knell. I don’t like these rigid classifications of literature that is worth taking seriously and popular culture that is drivel. I also don’t like the academic discovery of pop culture. That’s almost as much of a distortion as dismissing it as garbage. What I love about pop culture is the way the audience uses it. Those seven vivid cartoons all trapped together as castaways on a desert island--that cannot help but have a poetic resonance. The difference between “Gilligan’s Island” and “Waiting for Godot” is of degree, not kind.

You’ve been living on the East Coast for 10 years. What’s it like returning to the pop culture cauldron as an author on a book tour?

Well, that’s the cliche. In many ways, L.A. is a more civilized city than New York. L.A. has better bookstores. Every time I come out here, I try to set aside half a day just to go book shopping. Of course L.A. is the Plymouth Rock of pop culture. But that’s my meat as a critic and journalist.

Back in your LA Weekly days, weren’t you a TV critic who didn’t really like TV?

What I didn’t like was the conventional notion of quality TV, the middlebrow gamut that goes from Steven Bochco to PBS. I championed “The Simpsons” when more established TV critics were treating it as another vulgar show from Fox. Another show I wrote in favor of was "[Beverly Hills] 90210.” Tom Shales wouldn’t be caught dead saying nice things about “90210.”

Your upbringing placed you outside looking in at pop culture. Did this influence the book?

My father was a State Department foreign service officer stationed in West Africa in the early ‘60s. I had absolutely no access to American culture. No television. No movies. I got to West Berlin when I was 7 or 8. Thanks to the Army PX, at least I had access to Marvel comics and, very importantly, Mad magazine. I learned about American culture by reading the parody first. Which may explain a lot.

The name “Gilligan” never appears in the text except as an anagram.

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I was trying to hint at my elusive shadow narrator cropping up in the margins of everybody else’s story. Beyond that, I liked the idea of “Gilligan” as the unpronounceable name, like Yahweh from the Old Testament or Voldemort from the Harry Potter book.

Have any “Gilligan” fans objected to the liberties you take with the characters?

I have not run across those readers yet. I certainly would not be surprised if they did take umbrage. You think of those people who were ready to storm Hollywood because they cast Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man. If they got enraged about that, they’ll be coming for me with pitchforks.


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