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Literature / Whale Music

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Whale Music is a 1989 novel by Canadian author & musician Paul Quarrington. It tells the story of Desmond Howl, an eccentric aging rock star who has been a recluse since the death of his brother and bandmate Danny and spends his time composing and recording his "whale music"; that is, music he hopes the whales swimming around his waterfront mansion will listen to. One day he comes upon a mysterious young woman named Claire sleeping in his house. Over the course of their relationship, he begins to come out of his shell and engage with the outside world again.

The book was well-reviewed, with Penthouse magazine notably naming it "The best novel written about rock 'n' roll." It won the 1989 Governor General's Award for English-language fiction, and was nominated for the 1990 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour (losing to W.O. Mitchell's According to Jake and the Kid).

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An award-winning Film of the Book was made in 1994, featuring the music of Canadian art-rock band Rheostatics. You can view the film here.


Provides examples of:

  • Bland-Name Product: An unusual example involving a real brand name but a fictional product; the centrepiece of Desmond's home studio is a "Yamaha 666", a powerful synthesizer and sequencer that only he and Stevie Wonder own and which Desmond nicknames "The Beast". It seems to be a stand-in for the Fairlight CMI or Synclavier.
    • In real life, the Yamaha 666 was a model of French horn.
  • Blatant Lies: The book contains a disclaimer insisting that none of the characters (apart from the real-life celebrities depicted as supporting characters) bear any similarities to real people, even though Desmond Howl and The Howl Brothers are quite obviously based on Brian Wilson and his band The Beach Boys.
  • Broken Bird: Claire. She was molested by her stepfather.
  • Bury Your Gays: Sal is gay and terminally ill in a book taking place in the late 1980s; he most likely has AIDS.
  • Camp Gay: Sal "Sally" Goneau, former Howl Brothers drummer and Desmond's friend who has catty speech patterns and gives male characters feminine nicknames. His sexuality is never directly addressed nor commented upon, except when John Lennon says to the Howl Brothers, "Yer drummer's a poof."
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  • Canada, Eh?: Mostly averted; while the author is Canadian and the character Claire is from Toronto, Desmond is clearly American and lives in the United States.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Desmond, who exists in a haze of drugs, depression and delusion. His lack of common sense and off-beat comments mask a very dark soul, however.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Not only is the now-destitute Babboo Nass Fazoo living within walking distance of Desmond, he also happened to be in the same bar Des walked into after emerging from his house for the first time in years, and knew where Claire was stripping.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • Desmond, though given his demeanor and personality it's difficult to tell what is sarcasm and what is genuine. For example, this exchange:
    "Have you invited the Lord Jesus into your heart?"
    "No, the place is a mess."
    • The two Claires—Des' mother and his visitor—engage in a bit of this as well:
    Young Claire: Did you go to Bitch College, or is this a natural talent?
    Old Claire: Oh, I went to Bitch College, my dear. I did post graduate work.
  • Driven to Suicide: Danny, as is heavily implied.
  • Feet-First Introduction: The first line of the book describes Claire's feet on the couch. In the film, we're introduced to Claire when we see her toes.
  • Funetik Aksent: Several characters' accents are written phonetically.
    • Saxophonist Mooky Saunders speaks in a thick African-American Vernacular accent:
      "Shee-yut, when you gonna fawk that woman, Desmond?"
    • Babboo Nass Fazoo speaks in a near-incomprehensible Indian accent, with a bit of You No Take Candle thrown in:
      "I am gnawing where iss dis garl." (I know where this girl is).
      "Life is a powl of zoob." (Life is a bowl of soup).
    • The author does this with Paul McCartney's thick Scouse accent as well:
      "This is Pewl McCartley spikking. We must evarcuate immidzatly this rheum!"
  • Gollum Made Me Do It: Danny was reckless and dangerous enough to begin with, but he would turn it Up to Eleven with his "Stud E. Baker" persona.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: It's rather difficult for Des to get it up these days; he likens his penis to a worm. He starts to regain his prowess a bit after Claire movies in.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Claire, although she's a subversion. As with other Quarrington characters, Claire brings the reclusive Desmond back into living and interacting with people after he's been a hermit for a long time. However, the mental fragility of MPDG is examined, when we find out that she was molested by her stepfather.
  • Mistaken for Aliens: For some reason, Des thinks that "Toronto" is a distant planet in the Alpha Centauri system and that Claire, being from there, is an alien. It's quite awhile before Sal corrects him.
  • Mood Whiplash: From funny to blackly hilarious to almost frighteningly dark and depressing to touching.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Played straight and averted; while several real-life rock stars are characters in the book, many others are thinly-veiled parodies of real people:
    • The Howl Brothers are a parody of The Beach Boys, one of the most successful pop groups of the 1960s, who became famous with catchy songs about cars, surfing, and girls. Most of the main members were also related to each other.
    • Desmond Howl is a parody of Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys' main songwriter and composer, whose innovation and genius were sidetracked by drug addiction, mental illness and the resulting seclusion and poor health throughout the 1980s.
    • Danny Howl is a parody of Dennis Wilson, brother to Brian and drummer for the band who was known to have a much more reckless lifestyle and died tragically off the coast of California.
    • Dr. Tockette is a parody of Dr. Eugene Landy, Brian Wilson's former psychotherapist who took an unreasonable amount of control over Brian's life and is thought to have exploited him.
    • Hank Howell, Des and Danny's father, is a parody of the Wilson family patriarch Murry Wilson; both were failed songwriters who maintained strict control over their sons' careers, abused them, lived vicariously through them, and defrauded them out of thousands of dollars worth of royalties.
    • Babboo Nass Fazoo is a parody of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an Indian Hindu guru who mentored numerous celebrities including Mike Love of The Beach Boys and all four of The Beatles. He may also contain elements of Meher Baba, whose most noted follower is Pete Townshend of The Who.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted; Claire shares her name with Des' mother.
  • Posthumous Character: Desmond's father and brother are both deceased in the book's present.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Due to Desmond's hermit-like existence, drug and alcohol dependence, and obsession with the past, many scenes in the novel show Des reminiscing about the past and the Howl brothers' ascent to stardom.
  • Present Absence: Desmond's inability to face people or leave the house is directly related to Danny's death and his guilt over the circumstances.
  • Punny Name: Danny's alter ego Stud E. Baker is a play on Studebaker, an automobile manufacturer that went out of business in 1967.
  • Riches to Rags: Babboo Nass Fazoo was a wealthy guru with several famous devotees back in the 60s, but is now a drunken bum.
  • The Rock Star: Desmond and formerly, Danny. The book also includes scenes with the Howl Brothers interacting with Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
  • Scam Religion: Desmond is convinced that Babboo Nass Fazoo's teachings are this; the fact that only his richest followers could afford private tutelage seems to prove his point.
  • Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll: Both of the Howl Brothers consume quite a lot, though Desmond prefers the latter two.
  • Stage Names: A very mild version. The brothers' actual last name is Howell, but their manager changed it to Howl.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Des is quite fond of jelly donuts, coffee and just about any alcohol he can get his hands on.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Fay, although it's complicated by a case of Good Adultery, Bad Adultery. She cheated on Desmond with Danny, and Desmond doesn't seem to bear her any ill will because he wasn't all that invested in their marriage.
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