Tropical tale is potent and provocative

May 04, 1993|By Mark Vosburgh | Mark Vosburgh,Orlando Sentinel

On the Caribbean island of St. Catherine, long-dormant Mount Soufriere is threatening to erupt -- as are the long-suffering descendants of plantation workers who live in the volcano's shadow.

More curious than concerned, an American economic adviser accompanies an island forest ranger on a hike up to the volcano's rim, where they swim in the warm brown rainwater that collects in the crater.

Afterward, the forest ranger descends the mountain on the run. "I'm trainin' fah de day when she blow," the ranger explains to the American. "When La Soufriere blow."

The American finds it impossible to imagine such an eruption. "The problem . . . was one of proportion and of elemental propensity. Human beings controlled their own affairs. Mountains did not explode. No other logic led to the future."

Exploitation of and misguided thinking about Third World outposts like the imaginary St. Catherine are prevailing themes of this ambitious first novel by an already accomplished writer.

With an American Book Award for "Easy in the Islands," a short-story collection set in the Caribbean,Bob Shacochis envisions "Swimming in the Volcano" as the first of three St. Catherine novels.

The story is that of Mitchell Wilson, a white, middle-class Virginian sent to impoverished, black St. Catherine during the 1970s to advise the island's coalition government on profitable crops to plant.

Although the job appears to be apolitical, Mitchell unwittingly gets entangled in an escalating fight over land reforms. Rival coalition leaders view Mitchell with the suspicion that most white foreigners deserve.

To further complicate matters, Mitchell's long-lost love, Johanna, has suddenly returned, but with a new surname on her passport, cocaine in her diaphragm case and a few even more troubling secrets.

The more preoccupied Mitchell becomes with rekindling the old flame, the more precarious his position becomes. A friend disappears.

His house is ransacked. A cat is staked to his front door. But is he a victim of love or war?

Mr. Shacochis ranges so far and wide that he is being compared at once with Faulkner, Joyce, Graham Greene and Hemingway. And other comparisons are no doubt possible, for he writes and writes and writes.

In Chapter 15, he writes: "Then the barracuda, huge and enraged, was in the boat between them, flashing like the blade of a cutlass in the heat of battle. Almost immediately, both the boy's legs were slashed and bleeding and he was somehow up in the bow, holding on to the mast for his life."

In Chapter 34: "He inhaled the luxuriant sweet fetidness of the humid bush, like smelling one's private attars of putrefaction, an unwholesomely pleasurable question mark here extrapolated into the ecosystem, magnified into realm, the not so missing and not so secret ingredient of the nothing-is-replaceable side of life."

His mix of styles is no less remarkable than his blending of thrills, love angles, political intrigues, imaginary West Indian dialects and hauntingly real images of poverty. The result is a concoction as satisfying and potent as rum punch.

So who wants moderation, anyway?

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Swimming in the Volcano."

Author: Bob Shacochis.

Publisher: Scribner's.

Length, price: 518 pages, $22.

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