Bob Shacochis: American Writer in Caribbean Light

Bob Shacochis, who attended the University College of the Cayman Island’s Caribbean Conference in March, is a short story writer, novelist, essayist and professor of writing and literature. Shacochis’s insightful book reviews and much-sought-after essays appear regularly in American national publications. He delivered a paper at the UCCI on the latest developments in Haiti (it opens with the recent catastrophe in Haiti, the January 2010 earthquake), which is to be the Afterword of the June 2010 re-issue of his nonfiction book, The Immaculate Invasion, an account of the American involvement in Haiti during and after the1994 invasion under the Clinton Administration. The Immaculate Invasion covers 18 months of America’s Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti, where Shacochis interviewed Special Forces commandos, and bunked with them; confronted the bureaucracy of the US State Department, and the US Embassy; recorded personal accounts of the dangers of reporting in a ravaged country, rife with mad adventures and a rare, Beckettian sense of absurdity. The Immaculate Invasion is superbly written, immensely informative, beautifully and harshly accurate, and easily ranks among the best nonfiction works of the past 50 years on brutally corrupt American Foreign policy, Caribbean insanity, empire, and post-colonialism. It should be required reading for every American, Caribbean, and French citizen.

Catching the spirit of the Carribean
Shacochis’s first two books, both collections of stories set in the Caribbean region and its surroundings, won several of the most respected fiction prizes in America. He was also awarded the Rome Prize for The Next New World, his second collection of fiction. His novel, Swimming in the Volcano was shortlisted for the American National Book Award; like A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul, it has slowly established itself as one of the great novels of 20th Century fiction; but it’s very much a different work: without question, Swimming in the Volcano is one of the finest novels about the expatriate experience, and not because it’s set in the Caribbean, but because Shacochis has absorbed and superbly expressed the spirit of our place: the colours of our history, the fragrance of our islands, the iron of our days. If there is a Caribbean honour to grant Shacochis inter-island status that he may live and roam among us as he desires, let him be so recognized.

Swimming is set on the fictional island of St. Catherine, where an American expatriate gets involved in the rivalries disintegrating the government and dividing the island into a state of criminal anarchy. Sound familiar? The story begins with a rich, metaphorical prologue, where Godfred Ballantyne and Mitchell Wilson swim in the volcano of the title. The edgy sense of impending eruption, of some kind of chaos, coils its way through the prologue. In the first chapter, Wilson, on his way to the airport to meet his ex-girlfriend, the great lost love of his life, is told by Isaac, the driver, as they begin their descent of one of the island’s huge mountains, the taxi using coconut oil as brake fluid, that “Serious mahl-function takin place, Wilson.”

The ensuing action, a mad-hatter ride of sorts down the mountain in Isaac’s car, aptly named Miss Defy, is one of the most entertaining and beautifully written opening chapters I can remember in many, many years of reading. A tidbit of a sample:

“As the car picked up speed toward the first unfriendly curve, Mitchell vaulted into the back seat and crouched on the floor, throwing empty Ju-C bottles out the window so they wouldn’t crystallize in his face as they did in his imagination, salting his flesh during the impending crash. From his position behind the seat he coached Isaac, warning him to downshift.

‘No no, mahn. De engine buhn right up.’

‘This won’t do,’ Mitchell complained. ‘This won’t do.’ He thought Isaac should put the car into the mountainside, the sooner the better. Isaac gave him a quick look of scorn over his shoulder.

‘You pay fah repair? Eh?’ Isaac sadly shook his head as they began to enter the turn. ‘I ain goin do it,’ he said.”

The Modern Library should, perhaps with haste, revise its list of 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century in English, that premature and somewhat commercially-inspired honoring which, while certainly celebrating novels of great distinction, neglected Shacochis’s first novel, Swimming in the Volcano. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is on the Modern Library list, and should be removed, for it’s not really a novel: strictly speaking, it’s a novella. Replace it with Swimming in the Volcano, I say. For Shacochis’s novel is among the best fiction ever written by an American — and, ever written about the Caribbean: Like Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Roy Heath’s The Murderer, V. S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men, George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin, Swimming in the Volcano is never anything less than a burning magnificence: a jaguar on a hot beach of the upper Essequibo in Guyana, it saunters with the eloquent gravitas of a merciful nature god, one who hides absolutely nothing from you.

Exploring the expatriate experience
The stories in “Easy in the Islands” are all set in the Caribbean, and like Swimming in the Volcano address the expatriate experience: Americans fumbling about in the islands, trying to make sense of their lives and the locals; yet there is a wonderful intimacy between Shacochis’s expatriates and the people of the Lesser Antilles. In the first story, “Easy in the Islands”, Tillman makes his way through a trying day, the body of his mother defrosting in the freezer of the restaurant he manages. Not only must he fend off pesky locals, from the police to bar-help (oh! how familiar and delightful to witness in this way the social dynamics of small-island life, its petty corruptions and puerile rivalries, its facile and pompous leaps to outrageous fantasy), he must find a way to dispose of his mother’s body in a respectable manner. The bureaucracy of the island is what drives the narrative force here, and as such it thwarts Tillman’s attempts to bury his mother before she begins decomposing in the restaurant’s meat-locker. How he finally solves the problem of his mother’s burial is as necessarily innovative and romantic as anything done by the Caribbean people in their long relationship with the sea.

The brief opening paragraph of “Easy” beautifully sets up the tone and mood for the story and the collection; in fact, it’s one of the most quietly stated and incisive truths opening any work of Caribbean literature in the last fifty years. You know on reading it that its author lived, loved, and learned among us, worshipping our light. When Hemingway in 1954 won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he had been living in Cuba for many years, roaming the northern Caribbean with the ease that true freedom brings (try that today and you’ll probably run into representatives of the Caribbean’s most profitable industry: drug traffickers), writing about the land, sea, sky, and local and expatriate people of Cuba and the Bahamas; doing, in his own way, what Shacochis has done in his own Caribbean-set fiction. The opening lines of Easy assure this reader that Shacochis’s voice is true to our experience, to our history, to our people, to our place; and, no doubt about it, the level of its integrity is maintained, in every way that fiction demands, throughout his work.

“The days were small, pointless epics, long windups to punches that always drifted by cartoon-fashion, as if each simple task were meaningless unless immersed in more theatre and threat than bad opera.”

Show me a better opening in a book of Caribbean-set fiction and I’ll lasso UCCI’s President Roy Bodden with my ties. I admit V. S. Naipaul’s first paragraph in Guerrillas, his wrenchingly dark and pessimistic 1975 novel, is almost as good – perhaps as good. But it is so depressing.

More than ever before fiction writers of the grace and sagacity, of the talent and heart, such as Shacochis, are needed. The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky said in his 1987 Nobel Prize acceptance speech that he believed the 20th Century would have been less barbaric, not filled up with prayers and blood, had its leaders been better readers. He believed that good literature makes us live better lives, causes us to think, to question, to doubt. He might as well have said reading saves lives. And it does, but only if there are good readers, and great writers, such as Shacochis. To write good work, excellent work, great work is the sole responsibility of the writer, and so long as they achieve this, and are read, all their sins and eccentricities should be pardoned. And never mind, by the way, that this one sits at table with Irish Setters and has formal dinners with them, Cognac included. When we have writers of the ne plus ultra abilities of Bob Shacochis, not only should we read his work and listen to him, but we should celebrate him.

Keith Jardim is a professor of creative writing and literature at the UCCI. His first book, The Blue Is Deepest Here, a collection of Caribbean-set stories, is due in 2011.