Synopses & Reviews
Gun-slinging American student nurses and boozy New Yorkplaywrights-turned-educational-filmmakers find themselves stuck in the Haiti of 1955 as part of a government plan to pump up tourism and turn the Magic Island into the next Hawaii. The story follows the travels of Culprit Clutch, who appears mostly through rumor and innuendo, and his strange encounters with a plane-hopping British spy, Haitian street magicians, and a Scandinavian zombie. Josie, Culprit's ghostly paramour with a morphine habit, may or may not have voodoo spirits flowing through her, but the power-mad doctor channeling Baron Samedi is sure as hell bent on Culprit's destruction. The novels cascading epilogues include a legendary car race down the length of Mexico; street theatre in Golden Gate Park, circa 1968; a Skylab mutiny; origins of the musical comedy Godspell; and cameos by the Nation of Islam and early followers of Jim Jones.
Melo is a great spinner of yarns through polyphonic hearsay." Publishers Weekly
"Often one finds surprises in a novel, but it is rare to find a novel that is a surprise. Richard Melo's Happy Talk is just that. It is like a collision of William Gaddis, MASH and The Beguiled. It is a Haiti I could never have imagined and will not soon forget. These nurses are crazy and I wish I knew them." Percival Everett
"Happy Talk is a ribald and fantastic act of literary derring-do. Richard Melo has written a delightful throwback, an absurdist romp in the tradition of Terry Southern, that is sure to challenge and reward its readers." Jonathan Evison
"To read Happy Talk is to crash a party as vivid and surreal as Fellini's 8½. Its the business of show business, the American dream, told by a chorus of Americans locked just outside of that dream, outside of the United States, relegated to expatriate status on the shores of Haiti. Melo paints a version of Haiti that's an interior landscape perhaps even more than an external place. This Haiti is a plan, a memory, a morphine-drip fueled dream out to bond its inhabitants forever. Monica Drake, author of Clown Girl
A satire driven by dialogue, Happy Talk
takes place among Americans sent to Haiti in the mid-1950s for a myriad of misdirected purposes, then follows their lives through the 1970s. Front and center are two star-crossed lovers: the errant filmmaker Culprit Clutch and his ghostly paramour, a nursing student named Josie.
A band of New York City playwrights-turned-educational filmmakers, the Useless Bums, are sent to northern Haiti to create a tourist film promoting the new sport of surfing on Haitian beaches. It's part of a U.S. State Department/United Nations plan to turn Haiti into the new Hawaii. Joining the Bums are the Nightingales, American nursing students placed at a school in Haiti that's been forgotten by their contacts in Washington. The students have found a cache of rifle and are living in anarchic conditions, while teaching themselves the art and science of nursing.
The surfing film does not turn out as planned, as there are no waves in northern Haiti. The question becomes, what length will the U.S. government go to establish surfing as a tourist attraction on the magic island? The film set creates a curious spectacle witnessed by Haitians, who provide spectacles of their own involving voodoo possession.
A power-mad doctor has taken over as State Department provost and imprisons Culprit Clutch on the grounds of impregnating a student nurse. The Nightingales and Useless Bums concoct a wild plan involving theatrics and a commando-style raid to set the world right. Meanwhile, a small expedition heads toward a town built by zombies with the goal of finding one.
It turns out Josie is not having a baby after all; it was a hysterical pregnancy. After years of crippling headaches, Josie then suffers from a hysterical death. Unable to locate her family, the Americans drop her coffin into the sea. She returns, walking from the water on the waveless beach. Together again with Culprit in his pension room, she sleeps all the time and never speaks.
The Nightingales and Useless Bums receive orders to return to the states. Culprit and another student nurse, Belinda, arrive too late for the voyage home. Josie, meanwhile, walks back into the sea, for good this time. The ocean turns orange, a mushroom cloud appears on the horizon, and waves begin to roll onto the beach.
The novel has cascading epilogues that follow the characters before and after their Haiti misadventures. A young Culprit Clutch films a tragic-comic car race across Mexico in 1950. Abbot Jaffe is jailed briefly on drug charges in 1967, then decides to write a musical revue based on Jesus teachings and in seeking advice from Leonard Bernstein, encounters members of the Nation of Islam who are building a UFO. Belinda Ballard finds herself adrift in hippie-era San Francisco and is recruited into Jim Jones church. Keith Clone is helping build a commuter rail tube beneath the San Francisco Bay and is recruited to work on Skylab. Once aboard the space station, Keith Clone desires to kiss one of his fellow astronauts and during a space walk witnesses the Mother Plane, a humongous interstellar craft piloted by black musicians.
Driven by its ensemble cast and Catch-22-style dialogue, Happy Talk is an absurdist take on history in the style of a 60s-era postmodern, black humor novel. A work that walks along the edge of contradiction, it's satiric yet sentimental, avant-garde yet accessible, offensive yet agreeable, a serious look into the American soul.
About the Author
Richard Melo has written for Publishers Weekly, The Oregonian, Willamette Week, and The Believer. A graduate of San Francisco State University, he lives in Portland, OR where the world's rivers and oceans are always falling from the sky.