February 24, 2006

Swimming in the Volcano

by Bob Shacochis

This lyrical, intelligent, and interminable thriller is a fascinating puzzle. Writing in the Believer, Tom Bissell lauds it to the skies, and it's not difficult to see why: few writerscan so quickly and vividly sketch impressions of every aspect of the Carribean. The places and people of Shacochis's imaginary island are instantly recognizable -- the airport workers, the ferry snack-bar that never opens, the beach bar where tourists and local businessmen mix, the immigrants from up North who work in offices and schools and who occasionally walk down to that bar for the music or to cut one of the pretty tourist tuna out of the herd for a night to remember. This guy can tell you things about rum punch that you didn't know you'd forgotten.

But people come, people go, stuff happens, and this thriller never quite gets moving. That the protagonist doesn't understand what's happening to him is only to be expected, but we never quite learn, either. Long, leisurely excursions provide plenty of backstory without casting much light on what's happening to the people who brought us to the party. At times, this feels like a brilliant collection of interlinked short stories that was forced to dress up as a novel. In any event, such elliptical plotting simultaneously demands and repels attention.

Nonetheless, required reading for visitors from up north and the best thing I've read about the modern Carribean.