The intrepid writer has a tradition to uphold. He rushes in where the rest of us fear to tread. He visits places we wouldn't go and takes risks we wouldn't take. He ought to inspire, as Bob Shacochis does in "Easy in the Islands," envy, admiration and nervousness.
The nine stories in this collection are serious adventures. All are set on or near the water, in Florida or in the Caribbean. "The terms of life in the islands," one of his characters realizes, "were that nothing ever made sense, unless you were a mystic or a politician, or studied both with ambition. Then every stupidness seemed an act of inspiration, every cruelty part of a divine scheme."
There's plenty of stupidness and cruelty, but the stories are told in a controlled, intelligent voice. Another characteristic, another requirement, of the intrepid writer is that he keep his wits about him. He can't afford not to. To be naive, to accept things at face value, is more than a social gaffe; it's a dangerous form of stupidity.
Shacochis pushes most of his stories to the point where familiar guideposts vanish and native savvy is the only thing to steer by. What, for instance, is the American owner of a hotel to do when his mother dies and the incompetent local medical examiner won't permit him to bury her? He keeps the body in a freezer -- and you can guess what effect this has on the hotel employes. His bartender is ready to shoot him, and tries to. The body ends up in the bay of an airplane ordinarily used to move marijuana.
No need to give away the ending. The plot is already bizarre enough, and it is also completely believable. The title of another story, "Lord Short Shoe Wants the Monkey," is enough to suggest an unusual area of experience. In "Hunger," Shacochis makes you feel what it is like to lie at night on a speck of an island with feasting native fishermen, one of whom shows off by devouring 23 rotten turtle eggs.
The most extraordinary story is "Mundo's Sign," a marvelous tale that ranks with the best of Conrad and Hemingway. Mundo, a fisherman, has a sexy dream about a "girlie mahn." Interpretation: "Dis sign mean I must shoot a big he hawksbill," a large male turtle. Hunting with a spear gun, diving with mask and snorkel to depths of 60 feet in the clear water, Mundo does just that. Another fisherman claims that he netted the turtle before Mundo shot it. The dispute takes peculiar turns, and the white man in the story finds himself drawn into a world of ritual and prophecy where his reason -- his science, or "sci-ahnce," as the fishermen call it -- is of no avail.
Shacochis evokes the islands, the flora and fauna, the rhythm of the language, the feel of the air and the presence of the sea. In the best stories, the details transport the reader to a foreign place and even more foreign way of life. He seems ill at ease as an artist only when his material is conventional. In two "love" stories set in Florida, his prose is stiff and opaque, as if it were embarrassing to set down familiar emotions. His accounts of women -- their hair is described as "glorious waves, scintillating spills, their proud crop, heavenly curtains parted over the cold fact of their face" -- are agitated by self-consciousness.
These are small faults in a stunning first book. Shacochis has extended his knowledge and imagination into places most of us have never ventured. "Easy in the Islands" will take you away.