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BOOK REVIEW

Buffett's new novel is an entertaining Caribbean romp

Where does Jimmy Buffett find the time? He releases albums, performs at Fenway Park, and then puts out a novel. For a supposed beach bum, he is one crafty, crazed workaholic. No one works as hard at presenting a laid-back lifestyle as he does.

His new novel, ''A Salty Piece of Land," is a vast improvement on his first work of fiction, ''Where Is Joe Merchant?," which came out in 1992 and which was bogged down by too many characters and too many bizarre tangents.

Buffett is still prone to literary passages that can drift aimlessly like some of the antiheroes in his songs, but there are way more highs than lows in his new book. He has become a more entertaining and skilled writer, who gets better as this opus goes along.

The opening line is classic Buffett: ''It all simply comes down to good guys and bad guys." The central character, Tully Mars, is portrayed as ''a good guy with a few bad habits." As for those bad habits, if you've listened to any of Buffett's surf-and-suds-soaked songs, then you know what they are.

For the uninitiated, let's just say that Tully is a Wyoming cowboy who leaves under nasty circumstances (he throws a massage table through the window of a house that belongs to a ranch owner he detests).

He escapes to the Bahamas for misadventures that later take him to Key West, which is described playfully as ''one of those collapsing galaxies out in the universe sucking everything in."

Tully not only takes his horse, Mr. Twain, to the Bahamas but also meets Cleopatra Highbourne, the 101-year-old owner of a schooner named Lucretia.

She becomes his mentor, though he knows where he stands within her array of admirers: ''Her present mission kept a constant flow of scientists, students, and crackpots on board. It didn't take long to figure out which category I fit into." She also is an expert on Cuban baseball, of which Tully is fond.

Buffett makes a good claim to being a Renaissance man of the tropics. He gets a chance to display his extensive knowledge of many things, from sailing and seaplanes to pirate lore and piña-colada-foam parties in Belize. And, of course, there are numerous musical references to everyone from Van Morrison and Jimi Hendrix to Lyle Lovett, Joni Mitchell, and Artie Shaw.

Buffett also introduces some outrageous characters, such as Sammy Raye, who dresses up like Liberace and sings with a salsa band, and Noel-Christmas, a swinging bon vivant who ends up as a born-again missionary in Africa.

The twists and turns of his characters make this book a brisk page turner. It's not Shakespeare, but no one expected that. And, impressively, Buffett is always ready with a quip about extolling the joy, rather than dwelling on the sadness, of existence. ''The earlier in life we know we are part of something magical and mysterious, the better off we are," he writes.

The chapter titles could pass for song titles. Examples are: ''Into Everyone's Life a Coconut Man Should Fall," ''Everybody Out of the Pool," and ''Leap, and the Net Will Appear." But Buffett doesn't present glibness as his chief literary tool.

He also understands the cleansing nature of the Caribbean. He writes of Tully: ''The breeze blew in from the water, and I suddenly caught a whiff of myself. I needed an immediate and total immersion in salt water to wash away the smell of cigarettes from my clothes, the dead brain cells from my head, and the sins from my soul."

Buffett gets down and dirty at times, but again finds the light of the Caribbean to be irresistible. He makes us willing accomplices on his journey.

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