What's it like to live at the right hand of greatness and then to have it taken away? One answer might be found in the life of Ray Manzarek, who helped make the whirlwind that was the '60s band the Doors and who continues to ply its wake, better than three decades after Jim Morrison died in a Paris bathtub.
Manzarek and his fellow survivors continued to record for a while after the death of Morrison, the Doors' lead singer and spirit, and Manzarek later wrote "Light My Fire," a memoir of that time. Now he has penned "The Poet in Exile," a novel whose quirks make it more interesting than enjoyable.
Like the memoir and the band itself, "The Poet in Exile" would never have come to be if Morrison had not lived, and died. It begins with a conceivable premise, that Morrison suffered a heart attack that night in 1971 but faked his death to escape his stardom and the persona he had built. But once Manzarek leaps from his starting point, he has to stay aloft under his own power. The result falls short of satisfying, landing closer to annoying.
It's not a bad idea, just as it wasn't a bad idea when "Eddie and the Cruisers" came to the screen in 1983. It would be unfair to suggest that the moviemakers had the idea first; if anything, the Doors' story could have been an inspiration. But still, they float at a similar level.
What should set "The Poet in Exile" apart, of course, is Manzarek. As the band's keyboard player, he should be in the ideal position to compose an alternative ending. But that advantage can be a hindrance, as well. The reader is constantly wondering: How much is fiction, and how much is fictionalized?
It must have been a difficult line for Manzarek to tread. Hewing entirely to reality would have duplicated his memoir and probably would have been a lot less fun to write. But creating a totally fictionalized account of a rock singer who faked his own death, without leaning on the Morrison connection, would have produced - "Eddie and the Cruisers." Not only has that story been done, but it's been done better than this.
Manzarek's foreshadowing can be monotonous, he repeats phrasing maddeningly, and there's a droning quality to it all. In one two- page stretch, Manzarek invokes Freud, Moses, Akhenaten, Nietzsche, Jefferson, Jesus, and Dionysus. Somewhere in there, it stops being philosophical discussion and begins to seem like showing off (and to these ears, he was trotting out the wrong gang).
Some of them have only cameos, but Dionysus deserves royalties. I counted five references in the book, and I bet I glazed over one or two others. This isn't surprising; Manzarek has long held that Morrison was the Greek god incarnate. But it does get to be tedious.
Another bit of tedium is how Manzarek has chosen to change the names to protect the innocent, or possibly more to the point, protect him against any potential litigators. In some cases, the changes are too slight: Ray becomes Roy. Jim becomes J. (for Jordan) or "the Snake Man," although primarily he's "the Poet." Other characters don't even get names: The other two Doors never get beyond "the drummer" and "the guitar player."
Events are treated in the same way. Manzarek tells of a night in Stockholm when the Poet went onstage to jam with the opening act, "the San Francisco band," only to whirl himself off the stage and into an injury. He was out for the night, and Manzarek had to sing in his stead. As it happens, Morrison once went on stage with the Jefferson Airplane in Stockholm, whirled himself into a stupor, and missed the Doors show, forcing Manzarek to sing lead.
The dialogue in "The Poet in Exile" ranges from pedestrian to tortured. For example, the Poet describes a planter's punch: "It's too potent, and it'll sneak up on you like a water moccasin coming out from under a tangle of mangrove roots." Poet or not, what barstool sot ever spoke like that?
The novel's plot is barely more enticing. Manzarek is at home with his family in California when he gets the first of a series of postcards sent from the Seychelles Islands. After the third one, he determines to go there, to find whoever is sending the cards. So he hops a plane and, within two days of arrival, finds the Poet from among 100,000 inhabitants.
One implication of this conceit is that if Jim were alive, it's Ray he would most want to see. That may be the truth, but based on the evidence it seems that Ray has never been able to leave Jim in peace.