The looming winter months are upon us. Here we go into the winter wonderland. Let me propose something different.
I say we take a reader’s ride south where it’s warmer, and evade the cold – at least imaginatively-speaking – and celebrate the 30th anniversary of a classic book of fiction filled with island heat, the dazzling and desperate exploits of men, women, and youth who navigate or manipulate their ways out of neck-deep drama and survive by any means necessary.
Let’s take a literary excursion to the Caribbean.
I’m happy to hitch you to my writerly boat and head south to consider the milestone set in March, 1985 by one book of short stories. It also helped catapult writer Bob Shacochis into an even more in-demand career, as if the budding wunderkind in 1985 wasn’t getting enough early and deserving attention.
Easy in the Islands, his first book, became a new map for American short fiction.
It also won the American Book Award for First Work of Fiction in November, 1985. That distinct American Book Award program was renamed The National Book Award in 1987 as part of The National Book Foundation, while the award for First Work of Fiction was dropped. The Caribbean, for Shacochis, evolved into a goldmine for short stories partly as a result his work as an agricultural journalist in the Peace Corps from 1975-1976.
Before we leave 2015, let’s celebrate this anniversary. Shacochis’ stories in Easy in the Islands set the bar high with the delivery of a new kind of maximal short story, one that transcended the popularized, truncated and minimalist stories of Raymond Carver, Gordon Lish, Ann Beattie, and even a modernist like Ernest Hemingway. The so-called minimalists ingeniously cut their own stylistic path, and their work invited throngs of readers to take a renewed interest in both reading the short story and writing one. This was roughly the 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s. Minimalism had been fashionable and cutting edge, especially in the hands of best-seller Ray Carver.
With Easy in the Islands, Shacochis’ prose is lush yet attractively vibrant. One of his teachers at the legendary Iowa Writer’s Workshop (University of Iowa) was the great Southern fiction writer, Barry Hannah, and Hannah’s own stories are imbued with full-bodied prose, a no-holds-barred approach to storytelling. Even in Shacochis’ own uncluttered language, one sweeping sentence can establish a small world. Take this depiction in “The Pelican”: “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.”
Writing the stories in Easy in the Islands, Shacochis was acknowledging a fictional and stylistic depth created by Joseph Conrad and Mark Twain. He understands how these writers invented a muscular prose that casts a hypnotic effect on readers, while cutting deeply into characters’ decisions and consequences. Shacochis created his own blend of passionate prose that elevated, more than any American fiction writer at the time, Caribbean atmosphere, culture, tastes, smells, and the headstrong lives of characters.
By the second page of the story, “Dead Reckoning,” both the female narrator and her flighty partner, Davis, become crystal clear and chilling examples of Shacochis’ flourish: “His name was Davis and he was, whenever he came into the place, filthy. His jeans were caked with epoxy, his T-shirt looked like a painter’s palette. He wore tennis shoes that could have been chewed on by a shark and he had the worst fingernails I’ve seen on anybody. They were smashed and black and jagged, with enough dirt beneath them to occupy a geologist.”
His prose can suddenly become mellow, impressionistic, as in the story, “Hot Day on the Gold Coast”: “I glide across dark clumps of turtle grass and out over fields of sand bright blue with refraction…Beyond the reef, fishing boats swing and jerk like white kites against their anchors.”
That’s right. I’d say there is a fearlessness in the way he renders his prose. After reading Easy in the Islands, you know the Caribbean far, far better than you ever imagined you could. Shacochis’ voice seduces, and you’re beyond imagining. You’re living in the place.
Easy in the Islands impressed writers such as myself, in 1985, with its originality. It added a heightened lyricism in the American short story. The book took on a singular region in a small part of the world and gave it unforgettable dimension. John Irving took notice of it: he wrote a striking introduction to Shacochis’ January 1986 Esquire Magazine and Virginia story, “Where Pelham Fell.”
More than James Michener’s novel Caribbean, Easy in the Islands more intimately explored experiences you’d regard as a constant in that setting: sailing, fishing, the steamy night life, shantytown-living, island-hopping. There is chaotic romance in the collection, ripe with seductive trysts and flings. Each story is invested with Shacochis’ poet’s eye. When I first read it in 1985, the prose sizzled, pushing me to live imaginatively with characters’ wanderlust and their regional patois.
Although there were U.S.-centered stories in his second collection, The Next New World, some Caribbean flavor carried over, and most especially so into his first novel, Swimming in the Volcano (1993). His award-winning, long-form journalism engaged us to see the Caribbean of Haiti. Shacochis wrote feverishly in The Immaculate Invasion about the 1994 uprising against Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the U.S. intervention in that country.
In August, 2013, I interviewed Bob for Warhol’s Interview Magazine, a piece which preceded other print interviews during the promotional blitz for his second novel, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul. He addresses the aim of the novel and a few concerns as a fiction writer thirty years after Easy in the Islands. Even before The Woman Who Lost Her Soul was awarded Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014, I believed it had Pulitzer potential. The novel’s scope, spanning 50 years and four countries, is a purely Shacochis-concocted epic, a story that he rode, drafted, and re-drafted for ten years while he was similarly busy with life, teaching, and other writing projects. The novel won The Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction in 2014.
Although good distance exists between Shacochis’ works – especially the novels – it’s only a mirage. He’s always been writing. Something. War journalism, travel pieces, op-eds, essays, lectures, acceptance speeches, and the new uncharted territory of a third novel. He’s a writer’s writer – a tremendous teacher and mentor to his many students over the years at the Bennington Writing Seminars (M.F.A. Program for Writers) and Florida State University. You also learn by reading him.
In 1985, I learned a lot as a student soon-to-move-on from the Graduate Creative Writing Program at CU-Boulder. I learned from reading a young Bob Shacochis how a writer’s brutally honest engagement in context and writing moving sentences can lead stories to stay in one’s mind a very long time. Even thirty years.
Easy in the Islands: happy 30th anniversary. You remain in the top echelon of “best books of short stories” published in the last 50 years. Happy sailing, Bob, into the next novel. We’re waiting on the shore for it to pull up, safe and sound.