Swimming in the Volcano

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The nice thing about a small place like St. Catherine is that everybody knows everybody else. The politicians went to school together, refer to the prime minister as “Eddy,” and at night gather with the island’s other leading lights at the Rosehill Plantation beach bar for drinks and talk, quite a bit of both. For these reasons, it is hard to start a revolution on St. Catherine:

The evening’s specialty seemed to he contempt, dished out cold upon the reputation of the island’s growing corps of soothsayers predicting a civil war. “And who de hell gum fight it?” one man said to the other. They chupsed in unison. They chupsed and chupsed and chupsed, ridiculing the very notion of Catherinians earning enough about anything to kill one another in an organized fashion.

Cold War rhetoric, Castro, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) come across here as a bit absurd. In order to get in on the action, the government has to fabricate a guerrilla force in the northern mountains and shoot a Peace Corps worker.

The trouble with a small place like St. Catherine, however, is the limited pool of talent. The same fat faces keep showing up. Even such a disgusting figure as Joshua Kingsley can get elected prime minister (twice) and bring back Delwyn Pepper, the former dictator, as agricultural chief. No wonder some people regard well-intentioned Edison Banks, leader of the People’s Evolutionary Party (PEP), as a virtual savior. No wonder the politicians even consult Mitchell Wilson, twenty-six-year-old American expert. No wonder that Catherinians are, as Banks notes, forgiving. As one of the novel’s epigraphs puts it, “Forgiveness is based on the fact that there is no adequate form of revenge” (quoted from Charles Newman).

Consistent with limited human talent are other shortages—of pillows, auto parts, chickens, beef, pork, mutton, and fish (though this place is surrounded by the Caribbean). Some items are not to be had, such as brake fluid and good rice-but there are plentiful supplies of rum, drugs, rumors, police corruption, and government bureaucracy. Public services are nonexistent or outdated or do not work right, whether the water purification system, the phone system, the one television station, or the airport control tower (which catches fire, along with the fire truck that comes to its rescue). Welcome to this backwater of the Third World, the setting of Bob Shacochis’ first novel, Swimming in the Volcano.

The same Caribbean setting was the source of much local color and dark humor in Easy in the Islands (1985), Shacochis’ first short-story collection, winner of the American Book Award (a second collection, The Next New World [1989], won the Prix de Rome). In the first collection’s title story, Tillman Hyde (who reappears in the novel) stores his dead mother in a walk-in freezer until he can deal with difficulties with the authorities about burying her. In another story, “Lord Short Shoe Wants the Monkey,” a calypso star swaps a night with his girlfriend for a monkey, but the girlfriend takes revenge in a rather public hands-on fashion (these two stories first appeared in Playboy magazine). The collection ends with two memorable stories about poor island fisher-men that (along with another story) feature Bowen, a young American archaeologist who may be the model for Mitchell Wilson. Shacochis himself, as a Peace Corps volunteer during the mid- 1970’s, was an agricultural journalist on the island of St. Vincent (whose geography and place names suggest St. Catherine). Clearly Shacochis benefited from his experience: His ability to depict this Caribbean world-its people, culture, and language-is impressive.

To some extent, Swimming in the Volcano continues in the same veins as Easy in the Islands. Among scenes reminiscent of the earlier book, for example, are Mitchell’s airport encounter with Sister Vera, who distributes condoms; his ride down Ooah Mountain in Miss Deft, Isaac’s taxi, after the brakes fail; his lunch with the toadlike Kingsley, who likes liver; and his...

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Swimming in the Volcano

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

EASY IN THE ISLANDS, which won an American Book Award, entertained with its humor and local color. SWIMMING IN THE VOLCANO seems to pick up where EASY IN THE ISLANDS left off, even including a character or two from the earlier work. But soon the novel takes on a more serious tone, exploring the protagonist’s hazardous entanglement in personal relations and island politics. SWIMMING IN THE VOLCANO thus exemplifies Shacochis’ further development, his effort not only to write a novel but also to adopt a more serious point of view.

The novel centers on the further education of Mitchell Wilson, a twenty-six-year-old American not long out of graduate school. As an agricultural economist advising the St. Catherine government, he becomes a pawn in the island’s political struggles. The main infighters are PEP (People’s Evolutionary Party), led by the prime minister Ediso Banks, and PIP (People’s Independence Party), led by Joshua Kingsley, the agricultural minister. Mitchell’s lessons in politics are matched by his lessons in love when his former girlfriend, Johnnie, shows up again after five years, during which time she has acquired a husband and a heavy drug habit. The novel’s climax comes when Mitchell, Johnnie, and three other Americans are involved in a bloody international incident on Mount Soufriere, the island’s recently active volcano.

In the novel’s prologue, Mitchell and a forest ranger swim in the hot lake atop the volcano. This event forebodes later personal and political eruptions and becomes a metaphor for the novel, suggesting Mitchell’s naivete, the dangers of American “good intentions” (as seen in Vietnam), and the nature of existence in the nuclear age.

These updated themes recall such earlier writers as Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, while the novel’s narrative structure is Faulknerian. Some readers might find the structure too loose and anticlimactic, but they will have further opportunity to judge Shacochis’ novelistic techniques: SWIMMING IN THE VOLCANO is the first volume of a planned trilogy.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, March 1, 1993, p.1116.

Chicago Tribune. April 25, 1993, XIV, p.1.

Interview. XXIII, May, 1993, p.70.

Kirkus Reviews. LXI, February 15, 1993, p.180.

Library Journal. CXVIII, March 1, 1993, p.109.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, May 2, 1993, p.15.

Publishers Weekly. CXL, February 8, 1993, p.74.

The Review of Contemporary Fiction. XIII, Fall, 1993, p.226.

San Francisco Chronicle. April 18, 1993, p. REV4.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, June 13, 1993, p.7.