Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The plane, boss! The plane!

I'm increasingly coming to appreciate Christopher Moore as a literary palate-cleanser. I almost always enjoy his books, they're quick reads, and their content tends to surprise me even while the quality remains high. It now kind of fills the spot in my rotation that Terry Pratchett used to fill before I finished reading all his books... something reliable and lighter to enjoy between the heavier stuff. It's also nice to jump into something like this after wrapping up a more epic book... I'll admit to feeling a bit of an ego boost when I breezed through "Island of the Sequined Love Nun" in three days after fiddling with The Savage Detectives for two and a half months. "That's right, I'm not a slow reader! I just take a long time when I'm reading Great Literature!"

As you could probably guess even if you weren't familiar with Moore, Island of the Sequined Love Nun is a comedic book. I'm reading these things out of order, so I had previously met a few of the characters (Tucker and Roberto) in a later book, the phenomenal work The Stupidest Angel. This is chronologically the first place where they were introduced, so there's a bit more background on the two (especially Tucker; Roberto still remains a bit of an enigma). The two stories definitely stand on their own, though.


The plot of the book takes the form of a romp through exotic locales. It starts off with the glamorous (well, at least exciting) life of the private pilot for a cosmetics magnate; after a comically painful accident, a series of events land him on a tiny Micronesian island under the sway of a cargo cult.

I've heard the term "Cargo cult" before, but had always mentally equated it with thuggee cults. They're actually totally different, and totally awesome. Apparently, back in World War II, while the Japanese and Americans were fighting over Pacific islands, many primitive island societies had their first contact with the developed world when an airplane would land on a beach, field, or other open stretch of land. The pilot would give modern gifts to the natives, perhaps get them to do some work (build an airstrip, etc.), and then fly away. Enraptured, the islanders would turn to religious devotion in the hopes that the magical god from the sky would return one day giving them more gifts. They would keep the airfield clean so it would be welcoming to him, would sing the songs they'd heard over his radio, and so on. After the war, Catholic missionaries and others would come to these islands, and found the cults incredibly resilient. Why should they worship Jesus, they would ask, when the airmen had actually given them stuff? Isn't a god who's present on Earth better than one who's far away? Sometimes, they would accept the new faith, but adapt it to their own; for example, they would start to wear crucifixes, but would attach propellers to the top end.

In this book, a cargo cult is going strong on the island of Alualu. Instead of straight devotion, though, a hierarchy has been imposed on them. A missionary doctor became frustrated when his efforts to convert them failed, and he and his lovely assistant (a nurse/stripper turned high priestess) set themselves up as the true representatives of Vincent, the pilot who saved them with cases of SPAM after their men had been killed by the Japanese. There's a whole set of rituals that the Shaman and the Sky Priestess carry out: Broadway show tunes, an airplane, "chosen" villagers... a whole bunch of trappings that come close to elevating the Vincent cult into a religion. This is a bad thing, of course... the two in charge do not have their flock's best interests at heart.

As is often the case in Moore's book, it's a bit of a toss-up as to what's the best feature of the book: its plot or its characters. Both shine here. The plot is fun, fast-paced, and takes some unexpected turns. The characters are hilarious. There are some really good ones we only see for a little while - Vincent only makes a few appearances, but kills each time; Roberto is just so bizarre that I love him; the Mary-Kay equivalent (I forget her name) was a hoot. The main characters have a bit more depth, and are also great. Tucker's "nerdy hunk" character is really unique, and Moore gets a lot of mileage out of the combination of a great-looking and incredibly-awkward guy. The Chief is just a really great guy, not too funny but I really liked him. My favorite, though, has to be the Sky Priestess... partly because she's like four or five characters in one. That's a bit part of her personality, of course: she's able to pick and choose the persona that's most fit for the occasion. She's a consummate performer at heart, whether she's dancing nearly-naked in a scarf or packing a pistol or playing the part of a dutiful housewife.


Even though the book's an easy read, there's a surprising amount of stuff going on in here... lampooning of religion, the relationship between the first and third world, ethics, redemption, American media, and more. I can't really tell what's meant as satire and what's just funny, but it's all great.

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