Salvador: A Superbly Disturbing Look
Monday, March 12, 2007
BLOOD OF PARADISE
By David Corbett
Mortalis. 426 pp. Paperback, $9.95
Before he began writing novels, David Corbett spent 15 years as an operative with a San Francisco private investigation firm, an experience that left him without illusion about the ubiquity of crime, corruption and violence in this world. His second novel, "Done for a Dime" (2003), was one of the three or four best American crime novels I've ever read. It started with the murder of an old jazz musician in California and expanded into an epic story of political and corporate wrongdoing. His new novel, "Blood of Paradise," is an equally uncompromising look at crime and corruption, this time set in today's El Salvador.
Jude McManus, after serving with the U.S. Army in El Salvador, took a job there in "executive protection," which is to say he is a bodyguard for an American hydrologist who is studying a proposed water project. The hydrologist needs protection because kidnappings are frequent, along with virtually every other form of violence. The hydrologist is a decent man who starts out unaware that the project would divert water needed by villagers to instead enrich corrupt officials. McManus's problems begin when he meets with an ex-Chicago cop named Malvasio, a fine Shakespearean name for a psychopath who was once a friend of McManus's cop father. Malvasio works for mobsters in El Salvador when not executing hits in the States. A master manipulator, he uses his friendship with McManus's father to lure the younger man into trusting him.
We meet a rich array of other villains, from the young gang members who will kill you for a pack of cigarettes to the judges, politicians and ex-military officers who send them on their missions. Murder, rape, kidnapping, child prostitution, extortion, gang violence, drug smuggling, death squads -- these men control it all. When a villager complains that the water project has ruined her well, the mobsters have her killed. In the aftermath of that crime, Malvasio kidnaps an infant girl to silence her mother, and the question becomes whether he will kill the hydrologist and McManus to silence them, too. It's a complicated plot, but Corbett keeps the wheels turning smoothly as he leads us toward a stunning shootout/showdown.
This is, in part, a political novel. Corbett believes that, despite the long and bloody civil warand the 1992 peace accords, El Salvador is still ruled by a few rich families who use rigged elections, corrupt police and unrelenting violence to maintain their power, and who are supported by the U.S. military-intelligence complex. His characters see El Salvador as an eventual staging ground for a U.S. invasion of Venezuela to oust President Hugo Chavez and seize the oil resources there. If these notions offend you, if you prefer to see El Salvador as a glowing example of how our nation exports democracy, you won't like "Blood of Paradise." One of Corbett's few mistakes was including at the novel's end a 12-page statement on the political situation in El Salvador. The novel itself should, and did, make his views abundantly clear.
But Corbett is outraged by the country's politics, just as he clearly loves its beauty and the decency of its working people; his book is replete with rich, sometimes poetic descriptions. Here's a street scene that suggests both the charm and the menace of small-town life: "By day you'd see the streets jammed with women shopping at the mercado central, boys making bread deliveries on their basketed bikes, and schoolgirls in blue pleated skirts and white blouses walking arm in arm, while horn-honking traffic squeezed through the crowds beneath the blistering sun. But the night belonged to the mareros[gangs]. The city was too poor for after-hour police patrols. People shuttered their homes come nightfall and waited for dawn." He says of San Salvador, "Even as third world capitals went, it was lackluster, a sprawling, decaying stepsister to East Los Angeles, unworthy of its people -- its monuments neglected, its churches sad, its museums wanting." He introduces old women who see "the cruelty of life as God's way of reminding you He existed" and a government informer who rants that "criminals run free like dogs these days. They should be dealt with like dogs." Malice, like beauty, is everywhere. There is even, for students of such matters, a heroic sex scene in a tiny bathroom that stars McManus and an American anthropologist.
This is, above all, a serious novel. Serious, of course, is not always good. Serious can be deadly dull. But seriousness, when combined with moral concern and novelistic talent, can produce outstanding fiction. A number of writers, including Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, John Connolly and Dan Fesperman, provided advance praise for the novel, and some compared it to works by Graham Greene and Robert Stone that have also explored Americans caught up in troubling events in distant lands. The comparisons are apt. I would say of "Blood of Paradise" what I said of "Done for a Dime": If you accept its politics, if you don't find it too dark or disturbing, it's an example of the best in contemporary crime fiction -- or, if I may be so bold, in contemporary fiction, period.