Lovelace's 'Salt': heat, smell, a novel

March 09, 1997|By Lisa Schwarzbaum | Lisa Schwarzbaum,Special to the Sun

"Salt," by Earl Lovelace. Persea Books. 260 pages. $22.95.

In an ideal bookshop, something as fragrant as Trinidadian writer Earl Lovelace's newest novel would come boxed together with a packet of spices, a CD of West Indian music and a string hammock in which to swing as the author's melodious riffs and billows of language propel this lovely, passionate story on its gentle course.

As it is, you can almost-almost-sniff the scents of Lovelace's home island in this busy and satisfying story - a "political" novel in which everyday human hubbub speaks as eloquently as any political oration. Check that: more so.

The title refers to an old Caribbean legend at the core of this richly woven plot: As it is told, Guinea John, a mythical ancestor of the black people of the Caribbean, placed two corn cobs under his armpits and flew away to Africa. His descendants, however, having swallowed too much salt, were not able to lift off, follow and bust loose. "Emancipated" but not free, they remain uneasily tethered to their islands, trying to sort out their identities as well as their desires.

That's what Lovelace, following in the path of island writers as diverse as V.S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys, is doing here, too. And with luck for readers entranced by the seductive mysteries and contradictions of West Indian culture, it's what he'll pursue far into his writing career.

"Salt" - Lovelace's first novel in some 15 years, since "The Wine of Astonishment" - juxtaposes the journey of Alford George, a schoolteacher-turned-politician (who once tried to get his own students to leave home, following the lead of Guinea John), with that of Bango Durity, a laborer pursuing a much noisier approach to change.

First-person and third-person accounts clash and tumble against each other. Men and women sashay and squabble and state their claims, in voices fresh with passion (one passing girl's grace: "idle, victorious, invincible, as if the youth she was carrying was a fashion that she alone had a right to model").

One of Lovelace's favorite writerly bits is to start a chapter with a long, joyous cartwheel of a sentence - rather as if he's on a runway with corn cobs under his own armpits, eager to fly. And he does.

For instance: "On a sweaty afternoon in that July, with dark clouds hanging low over Port-of-Spain, stirring up a heat that had policemen unbuttoning their tunics and passengers begging taxi drivers to turn down their music, as if less noise would mean less heat, the Prime Minister who earlier that week had thrown his telephone into the Gulf of Paris to protest at its being tapped by foreign agents spying on him from their station in the upside-down Hilton Hotel, was in his office dictating a letter to his secretary, when the heat wrestled the air-conditioning unit into uselessness, penetrated the drapes of the room and reached him at his desk."

Whew.

The heat rises off the page with strong storytelling like that. And the susceptible reader can sniff the aromas of the politicians, the schoolchildren, the laborers, the women in the streets of Port-of-Spain and even old Guinea John himself in these fine pages.

Lisa Schwarzbaum, a critic at Entertainment Weekly, was previously a feature writer at the New York Daily News and has worked for the Boston Globe and the Real Paper.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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