Easy in the Islands is a collection of nine short stories linked by location and a feeling for Caribbean life. Seriocomic in mode, the stories are best in their evocation of the color and music of island life, whether Barbados or Saint Vincent. More than half the stories first appeared in Playboy magazine or Esquire magazine, two of the best contemporary fiction markets in the United States, and the collection itself won the American Book Award for Best First Fiction in 1985.
Most of the stories focus on the interplay—sometimes conflictive but nearly always comic—between mainland and island cultures. One story, probably the weakest, is set in Florida and has only mainland characters; another is set in the Cayman Islands and has no major white characters. The majority of the stories in the collection, however, set between these poles of color and geography, focus on the intersection between white and native cultures, as visitors from the United States, both long- and short-term, grapple with the “enigma” (Shacochis’ epigraph is from Joseph Conrad) of island life. As Tillman, the leading character in the title story, explains, nothing on the islands “ever made sense, unless you were a mystic or a politician,” but, at the same time, life there “had a certain fullness” and was “authentic in the most elemental ways.”
Shacochis’ characters try to unravel the enigma: The best learn something about themselves as they grapple with the “whisperings” of the islands; the worst are taken advantage of and learn nothing. (Tillman wishes “himself a dollar for every time their notion of paradise would be fouled by some rudeness, aggression, or irrelevant accusation.”) The weakest characters see only an “unclean paradise,” but others see that life on the islands is “overrich, festering, or glorious, never to be reproduced so wonderfully.” Readers can agree with the second view.
The plots of Easy in the Islands are less important than the moods of the stories or the themes that emerge from the confluence of plot, character, and mood. In “Easy in the Islands,” which opens the collection, Tillman has inherited the rundown Rosehill Plantation hotel from his father but must find a way to dispose of the body of his mother, who has inconveniently come to the islands to die. This comic story functions mainly as a vehicle for glimpses into island life: the brilliant scene of Tillman’s disgruntled bartender slaughtering a cage of parrots with his machete, for example, or the description of the “pastel city breathtaking from the heights above it but garbage-strewn and ramshackle once you were on its streets.”
Enveloping the action is a feeling for the richly colorful, musical moods of island life. In “Easy in the Islands,” the tone is seriocomic, as Tillman battles various entrenched authorities in the attempt to get his mother’s body out of the hotel meat locker where he has stored it. (Readers will be reminded of William Faulkner and, particularly, of As I Lay Dying, by the macabre humor here.) “These islands have a way of forcing everything but the lowest common denominator into oblivion,” Tillman complains. Still, the feeling that emerges from the story is, for the reader at least, exactly the opposite.
The comic vein runs through the collection. In “Hot Day on the Gold Coast,” an American named Weber is chased by the police for jogging in a Palm Beach suburb in undershorts. In a fast-paced series of Keystone Kops scenes, he eludes the police, dives into the bay, and is saved—but by a boatload of illegal Haitian refugees waiting for the cover of darkness to land. Weber spends the afternoon in a poolside cabana at the Breakers, ordering food and drink and telephoning for help.
In perhaps the best story in the collection, “Lord Short Shoe Wants the Monkey,” a popular calypso singer is trying to buy a live prop for his recent political hit, “Dis Country Need a Monkey,” and is even willing to trade the voluptuous singer Melandra Goodnight to the American who owns the animal. Finally, after a night of drinking on the terrace outside a Bridgetown jazz bar, the bargain is struck: Short Shoe “will take the monkey on tour for six weeks and then return him to Barbados. Harter will take Melandra for one night.” Harter, however, is too drunk to...
(The entire section is 1798 words.)