"So," she asks,"do you have any coffee or what?"

Do I have coffee. I support the country of Colombia almost single-handedly. “Look in that cupboard,” I say through a mouthful of doughnut.

She opens it, whistles through her teeth and announces, "Coffee." The girl sets about preparing it.

"Make lots," I tell her. “I'm not supposed to have any.”


Do you think she might be some sort of housekeeper? I've had them before, although they have tended to be much older and stouter creatures. Teutonic, more given to the wearing of clothing. The girl has freckles all over her body, little bits of sunlight.

"Where do you come from?" I ask. (6-7).

The Novel

The late Paul Quarrington wrote clever and often very funny novels about people with profound emotional issues. Whale Music (1989) concerns Desmond Howl, creative genius from a long-defunct, once very famous band, who, since the death of his brother, Danny, has holed up in a decrepit mansion. His brain damaged by years of substance abuse, his body bloated by poor eating habits, his house crumbling around him, he avoids contact with the world, and composes his masterpiece. He doesn't expect it to make money; he's composing for whales.

His brother's car went into the ocean. He hopes the whales will hear the music and deliver a message to Danny. Perhaps, then, Danny will stop haunting Des.

His life begins to change the morning he sees toes on his couch. They are attached, it turns out, to Claire, a twenty-one-year-old stripper running away from her life, which has featured its share of abuse and craziness.

Claire becomes a muse of sorts for Desmond, tolerating his dysfunctions, and bringing him back into the world. He writes his first commercial hit in years for her, and reconnects with important people in his life. It would be easy to see this as a male fantasy—beautiful young woman finds washed-out middle-aged man, becomes his girlfriend, and brings him back into the light. To some extent, this is apt. However, Quarrington handles the situation with finesse, and makes Desmond part of Claire's healing journey.

That journey's conclusion seems a little forced, and we're left uncertain as to what actually happens when Desmond finally leaves his house. Does Des actually meet his former mentor in a bar, by chance, when he goes questing for Claire? And does it really matter?

We also experience flashbacks to Desmond's career, particularly to the rise and fall of the Howl Brothers, a sixties band whose career sputtered on until Danny's demons drive him to an early grave. They try to sing about clean teenage dreams, cars and girls and the beach, but the darker side of the world stalks them. Along the way, they meet the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis. They get into a fight with John Lennon and study the ways of an Indian guru/scam artist, the Babboo Nass Fazoo. They do not ever encounter the Beach Boys; that would be a little too strange. Although Quarrington has crafted a fictional story, anyone even vaguely aware of the Wilson brothers' long strange trip will recognize his inspiration. Reportedly, Brian Wilson has called Whale Music the best book written about the Beach Boys1. Certainly, it may be the best written about a has-been rock star, with the most engaging troubled fat man since Ignatius J. Reilly.

The Movie

In 1994, Whale Music became a movie, directed by Richard J. Lewis and written by Lewis and Quarrington. Maury Chaykin gives an energetic Genie-winning performance, providing much of the reason to see this film. His Desmond is at once charming, disturbed, demented, and childlike. He comes alive when he conducts his recordings; he thrives when he swims. Chaykin's delivery does wonders with the dialogue, capturing perfectly Des's off-kilter but not always inaccurate perceptions of the world.

Claire (Cynthia Preston) has been changed slightly. We see a little more balance in the handling of their respective backstories, and a little less of their relationship. They eventually become sexually involved in the book. The movie, wisely, never shows or even really suggests this, hoping to capture a sense of the childlike innocence in these people, despite all they've experienced. This Claire also states she is only nineteen—though the actress, certainly, is older, and Claire may be lying to annoy Des's ex-wife, Fay (Jennifer Dale).

The film, predictably, shows us less of Desmond's past, but it otherwise holds fairly close to the plot of the novel. As in the printed source, we cannot embrace Des's issues, but he's more likeable than many of the sane people around him, and we find ourselves on his side.

The conclusion unfolds a little differently than in the source, but it takes us to the same place. And speaking of places—the film makes excellent use of minimal locations, most especially the breathtaking coast of Howe Sound, B.C., and the hilariously chaotic mansion through which Desmond shambles. It clearly represents his confused, tortured mind; the place improves as he crawls towards a reconciliation with the world. Whale Music did not fare especially well, outside of Canada, but it has found a dedicated audience, and I can heartily recommend it.

The Music

Quarrington's novel so impressed the Rheostatics that they wrote an album inspired by it. A short time later, they were tapped to write entirely different music for the film. The Howl Brothers' early hit, "Torque Torque" sounds favorably like early Beach Boys. The Whale Music itself, or what we hear of it, likely won't match what you imagine when you read the novel, but it's pretty good, and it serves its purpose. "Claire" became a hit for the band, their most commercially successful release.

As for the whales' response, you will have to investigate yourself.

1. Unconfirmed, but the quotation at least sounds plausible.

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