Easy in the Islands

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1798

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...

(The entire section contains 1835 words.)

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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 realize that the sultry Melandra is making love to him in front of most of the bar’s patrons, and he learns a hard lesson. “’Monkey,’ she hisses, pointing at Harter. ’Womahn,’ she says, jerking a thumb at herself.” Harter will become the subject of the next calypso hit. Even the comic lesson here may be less significant than the atmosphere Shacochis is able to create, a Caribbean night dripping with music and sex. The story first found its perfect home in Playboy magazine.

The weakest stories in the collection have only minimal interaction between white and native life and focus almost exclusively on romantic voyages. In “Dead Reckoning” and “The Heart’s Advantage,” lessons about the insensitivity of men are undercut by obviousness and sentimentality. In both stories, the central male characters are driven by their dreams to sail the Caribbean—so obsessed, in fact, so rigid and competitive, that they are unable to see and appreciate the lovely women who will accompany them. The hero of “Dead Reckoning” (clearly the stronger of the two stories) tries to teach a young Nevis boy a lesson “he didn’t need to be taught” but fails to learn anything from the encounter himself. As the woman narrating the story realizes, “paradise had become just another place to leave behind.” The men in both stories suffer from tunnel vision and thus spoil the view of the world for others.

Shacochis is best when he is describing actual island life, and not the romantic adventures of Americans dreaming of the islands. The last three stories in Easy in the Islands are connected through the character of Bowen, an archaeologist studying island culture—and learning from it. In “The Pelican,” he finds a wounded bird Saint Vincent fishermen have caught for food. Bowen is not “a man of action,” but he feels compelled to put the bird out of its misery. The dull penknife he uses to pry pottery shards out of the ground is useless here, and the bird is finally dispatched by a young boy with a stone. The reader is conscious that he is observing a crucial intersection between two cultures with different values. While one set may seem more primitive, it is not clear that they are any less effective in their own world. In the end, the boy offers to sharpen Bowen’s penknife with his stone. As in the children’s game rock, scissors, paper, someone gets hurt; Bowen fears that “he had shamed himself.”

In the last two stories in the collection, Bowen accompanies fishermen to isolated islands and reefs in search of fish and turtles. In “Hunger,” very little happens; native life is observed through the eyes of the outsider. In “Mundo’s Sign,” however, Bowen’s best friend among these fishermen wrestles a three-hundred-pound sea turtle out of the net of a competitor, and the men turn to Bowen to arbitrate the dispute. As Bowen recognizes in the image of the sea turtles that mate for a moment and then spend a year apart, his contact with island life can be cursory at best. He will be “a white man and an outsider” to this life always.

Again, however, important as this theme may be, it is overshadowed by the rich descriptions of Caribbean culture, such as the folkways of the fishermen, their customs and rituals, the dreams and other signs they look for to guide their lives and bless their work. (They see the green finch that lands on Bowen’s shoulder as good luck; Mundo dreams of a homosexual encounter and then achieves it, figuratively, in stealing the giant sea turtle from another fisherman.) Bowen may remain outside island life, but readers, like the finch, look over his shoulder at the complex island culture he views.

A prime example is Shacochis’ style and, in particular, the pidgin English he records in these stories. “Mistah Till-mahn,” the island doctor says to the hotel owner, “it look so you muddah shake out she heart fah no good reason. Like she tricked by some false light, ya know.” Shacochis is able to capture this language without either the oversimplification that often plagues Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Streams (1970) or the opacity of Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga (1976). In “Redemption Songs,” a story of awakening political consciousness among island blacks, the language, like the title’s reference to Bob Marley’s reggae, reinforces a sense of the economic oppression felt by many island inhabitants. “Scamps blow up Richmond Park,” declares Momma Smallhorne, the rum shop owner. “Is dead white people everywhere. Dey place a bomb in a poor billy goat. Oh, Lahd, when dis wickedness goin stop?” The scene is comic, but the undercurrent is quite serious.

The style of the stories is consistently effective and is the vehicle by which the moods of the stories are so often established. In a description from “The Pelican,” Kingstown is felt through the senses of Bowen:The air was clear and sweetened, unpenetrated by weekday noise, until he crossed the block that separated the government houses from the shanties of the ghetto and then the city smelled like rotting fruit and kerosene, urine and garlic, and the sun burned with a cruel intensity. It was a reggae bass he heard first, syncopated and booming .

In a style that is often poetic and always descriptive, Shacochis renders Caribbean life in vivid and graphic detail.

Nevertheless, the title of Easy in the Islands is ironic: Life in the islands is, if anything, uneasy, and travelers from the United States especially are never quite at ease in this “second-rate Eden,” as the main character in the title story knows. “It wasn’t very easy to find peace on the island,” Tillman muses. “Whereas it was very easy to catch hell.” The wisest characters in these stories learn from their encounters with island life.

Shacochis is but one of a number of American writers who describe life in such terms. Like Louise Erdrich in Love Medicine (1984), Gerald Haslam in several collections of short stories, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and other black writers (Morrison’s Tar Baby, 1981, has similar settings and conflicts), Shacochis is exploring life in alternative cultures. American literature in the last quarter of the twentieth century seems less and less confined to white, middle-class life and more and more concerned with the culture and consciousness of other Americans. The results, as here, are often quite rewarding.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 37

Booklist. LXXXI, December 1, 1984, p. 484.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, December 1, 1984, p. 116.

Library Journal. CX, February 1, 1985, p. 114.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, February 17, 1985, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, November 30, 1984, p. 81.

Saturday Review. XI, January, 1985, p. 79.

Time. CXXV, February 18, 1985, p. 100.

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