The relaxed and reigning king of beach music, who most recently told Tales From Margaritaville (1989), tries his hand at a relaxed and rambling novel. It's about seaplanes, a pretty girl, a vanished rock star, the curse of jet skis, a magic scepter, disrupters of paradise, and conch burgers. Joe Merchant, of the title, is the missing, presumed dead rock star whose sister Trevor Kane has returned to Florida to enlist her old lover Frank Bama to check out rumors of Merchant's survival. Trevor left Frank, a Vietnam vet who would rather fly than get serious, years ago because he seemed to love his ancient seaplane more than he loved her. Frank's doughty seaplane, however, is just what she needs to go in search of someone named Desdemona, who might be somewhere in the Caribbean. There is a Desdemona, and she does have a psychic link to the missing musician. She's been getting extrasensory messages for months. Also on the trail of Mr. Merchant and Desdemona are trash journalist Rudy Breno and one- armed, archvillainous soldier-of-fortune Colonel Cairo. Colonel Cairo is obsessed with the restoration of his missing arm, a task requiring a missing crystal. Desdemona might know something about that. The searches are Florida-intense, which is to say that there is plenty of time for subplots about Frank's chum who has been blowing up the jet skis that make paradise too noisy, and about a coldblooded killer with eyeballs tattooed on his eyelids who's not, after all, a subplot. So laid-back and rambling it's perilously close to sloppy, but Buffett's considerable charms as a performer and goof-off artist keep things afloat. The uninitiated may be baffled; his fans will be enchanted.