The prodigal son returns to his all-American neighborhood, bearing a badge of achievement. Mother, father are overjoyed. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, the old high school sweetheart and the old high school teacher are waiting at home, crystal tears shining their cheeks. Our boy was lost, they say. And has come back triumphant.
Not quite, says Bob Shacochis, who left a respectable McLean home for the Caribbean, his head randy with wanderlust, and came back with a laurel leaf from the writing establishment in the form of the American Book Award for First Fiction, presented last November.
"When you grow up in the suburbs," says Shacochis, 34, "you can't come back five years, 10 years later and say, 'Gosh, look at that spot' and 'Look at that corner grocery that has all those wonderful memories that it evokes in me' and 'Look at that big beautiful oak tree still standing there.' Because there never were corner groceries and big beautiful oak trees. There was nothing. Just a damn spiritual wasteland . . . "
Nonetheless his parents were very pleased, and Shacochis got into Time, and the book that won the award, "Easy in the Islands" -- a collection of short stories based on his experiences in the Caribbean -- is enjoying generally positive reception from the critics. Now a visiting lecturer at the Iowa Writers Workshop (where he wrote "Easy" as his thesis) with a novel ("Swimming in the Volcano") in progress and a short story in the January Esquire, Shacochis seems to be tasting as much triumph as you can with a first-time book.
Except that he has found teaching at Iowa "stressful" because he's unsure of his new role as a writing teacher, and the teaching takes his energies away from his writing, and he'd just as soon chuck the present novel anyway because he's sick of writing about the Caribbean. He'd rather start writing about an old Virginia family, he says, or even take up a post he was recently offered in Hong Kong with an American newspaper. Success is never quite there. "There's no guarantee," he says in a smoke cloud of Camel Lights. "Everything can be taken away tomorrow, too."
The clear blue eyes flicker behind the colorless plastic glasses, and the face is framed with the requisite shaggy beard -- to tug at when the muse is elusive, perhaps. The answers come out thoughtful, if not guarded, accompanied by a careful sense of self-deprecation.
It's easy to imagine Shacochis lolling in the Caribbean; harder to picture him grunting and snorting his way around the southwest Caribbean in a rowboat as divers plunge 12 fathoms for turtle, lobster and grouper. Which is what he did for a year, the first sojourn in the journey that began in 1973.
Shacochis, fresh out of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and smack in the middle of the Archie Bunker/Meathead polarity of the U.S. at the time, "wanted to see something different." So he headed for points uncertain in South America, with $1,000 and three leads -- the telephone numbers of an animal catcher in Colombia who supplied zoos and an inhabitant of a South American island that boasted a lagoon-full of pearl-bearing oysters, and a tip that "the girls in Colombia were the most beautiful in the world."
"I'm a dumb white kid who's never been out of the suburbs" was the gist of Shacochis' oral letter of introduction to the divers. "I'm not sure how I ended up here, but would you like a slave? I'll do anything to hang out with you to see if I can learn something."
The experience became one of the stories in "Easy," called "Mundo's Sign," in which a Caribbean diver has had a dream he made love to a man. Mundo takes that to be a sign he will catch a rare hawksbill turtle that day; all this to the amazement of an American visitor called Bowen. The story combines an entertaining tone of island flippancy with the mysticism of Hemingway's "The Old Man and The Sea."
Obliged to return to the States because of money difficulties and health problems, Shacochis knew he had to return to the islands. During his brief hiatus back home, he met Barbara Anne Petersen, who among other things had retained her West Virginia high school nickname of "Catfish." He told her he was going back to the Caribbean with the Peace Corps and invited her down. She joined him at his first post in St. Vincent and life in the islands for Shacochis seemed a balmy indulgence of sun, fun and "being seduced by different cultures." But Caribbean holiday soon became Paradise Lost. As Shacochis says, his voice somewhat tremulous in the accounting, "Bad things started happening."
He awoke one night to discover a local intruder in his house, brandishing Shacochis' diving knife. Shacochis survived the incident with a slight wound to his neck, but the experience was "a look into the grave." And although Shacochis had the man identified and arrested, the social fallout was grim: "I'd wake up in the morning and somebody'd be standing at the top of my driveway with a machete telling me they're going to chop me up, use me for chum, bait . . . I mean, a ridiculous situation for a middle-class, innocuous Peace Corps volunteer to be in."
The problems seemed to accrue. The Peace Corps moved him to Barbados and then St. Kitts, but a close friend died there trying to hop a sugar-cane train. A housemate stole his money. With all the trouble, he felt obliged to send Catfish home. "I got pneumonia in Antigua . . ."
With Paradise a worrisome memory, Shacochis returned home and rejoined Catfish. They spent a year living in and renovating a condemned house in McLean ("Right behind McDonald's"), while Shacochis started writing stories. The knife incident had made him "stop everything and reconsider," says Shacochis. He knew now with certainty he wanted to be a writer.
He reapplied to the University of Missouri and the couple spent "two miserable years in the Midwest," while Shacochis got a master's in English. After that, they retreated to Florida, where "Catfish gave me three years of working to support me while I wrote. And I didn't have to do anything."
He worked as a copy boy, however, for the Palm Beach Post-Times because "all we were doing was going deeper and deeper into debt." At the paper, he pulled a sheet out of a wire service machine that announced that James Michener had provided a fund for first-time writers graduating from the Iowa Writers Workshop. And even though he and Catfish hated the Midwest, Shacochis applied to Iowa immediately and was accepted. "I said, 'Catfish, guess what? I want to go to Iowa,' and she burst into tears."
They went back to the corn and the dust. "I was switching patrons. Now the University of Iowa was going to take care of us for two years. Catfish was still going to have to work, but I wouldn't have to be taking Coke bottles back for cigarettes, which really was the way things were until I started selling stories."
The Iowa Writers Workshop was "a warm bath of an environment to be in," says Shacochis. It was a "fantasy world . . . You know, Paris in the '20s, New York in the Whenever. It was great to be there. The atmosphere was very supportive. It's a relief to see your decision to write hasn't been irrational or crazy. And if it is, you're in good company. I think it's the most noninstitutional academic institution I've been involved with. They go out of their way to provide you with a system that demands nothing more of you than to write."
Which he did; rewriting the stories he had been working on and creating new ones. He had the material all right: While he had fallen out with the islands, the experience had left him with an orchard of narrative possibilities. And it was the seamy and ludicrous faces of Paradise that won him the American Book Award. Perpetual irony seems to confound the characters in the "Easy" stories. In the title story, a hotelier whose mother has just died is wrongly accused of poisoning her by an incompetent local detective. But since the equally inept local doctors cannot perform an autopsy with sufficient accuracy, neither guilt nor innocence can be established. Meanwhile, the mother's body waits unceremoniously in the hotel walk-in freezer during the protracted stalemate.
"The terms of life in the island were that nothing ever made sense," writes Shacochis, "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."
The absurdities continue. In "Redemption Songs," Shacochis drew from an account he had heard from two friends who were robbed of their suitcases while asleep in a wharf in Freeport. "I thought it was a hell of a story and I tried to write it from their point of view. It didn't seem interesting, so I decided to write from the robbers' point of view."
The result is the story of Glasford and Fish, two Caribbean brothers with opposing impulses. Glasford, a man with unresolved, angry political instincts, just knows he wants to "do someting." Fish would rather sleep with his girlfriend, but defers honorably to his brother. Glasford takes Fish on a pell-mell vandal's spree through town, risking both their lives, which culminates in the confrontation with the couple sleeping in the harbor.
"It's sociologically audacious," says Shacochis, "to make believe that I'm a poor black man in a Third World country, to write things from their point of view. I realized there was a risk involved in doing that . . .
"But I felt I'd reached the point where I could represent their view with some credibility."
When the literary agents came, as they regularly do to the Iowa program, like so many IBM recruiters, no one was interested in short stories, says Shacochis. They wanted novels. Eventually agent Gail Hochman read the stories, liked them and said she would solicit magazines to get them published. But when she came back with "a stack of rejections," he was despondent. "I thought this was my one chance, and nobody's buying it . . . I said to Hochman , 'If you can't sell them, I'm going to hold you hostage and strap a bomb to my chest. She sold the Playboy story before I was 30 and I was ecstatic. You set these silly goals. Yet these silly goals are crucial in your sense of how you're doing."
They eventually obtained a two-book, $6,000 contract with Crown ("Swimming in the Volcano" is the second book) in 1984 and "Easy in the Islands" was published last February. Shacochis also got his Michener Award, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and, after that, a scholarship and fellowship at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference.
When he won the book award last November, says Shacochis, the first he knew about being the winner was "right there in front of 1,500 people in the gallery of the New York Public Library." Just before the ceremony, adjudicant Doris Grumbach approached Shacochis, who was talking with fellow nominee Cecile Pineda. "She said, 'Well, we just now finished deciding who is going to get the award in your category.' I thought, 'Jesus Christ.' She said, 'You'll never know how it went.' She did say there was controversy over the decision . I don't know especially what to think about that."
Shacochis is guarded, if not cynical, about any success the award will help engender. There has been no tea with Norman Mailer on the South River. There has been a lot of "basically nothing." After the ceremony, he had to hitch a ride "with the director of the awards in their limo to the Palladium nightclub . It's not like they offered me a ride . . . "
He gets mail, sure, from "people who have read the book, who either want to correct my punctuation or tell me that they liked the book."
While he cannot deny the pleasure of basking in literary glow, Shacochis feels "very shaky" describing himself as a writer, and "just because I won that award doesn't mean I can write that way tomorrow"; the ups and downs of modern life are already familiar to him, he says. "I've grown up in Washington, D.C., which gave me a very good sense of social mobility. The Kennedys went to the church I went to. I lived in a very middle, middle, middle-class neighborhood. I had friends who came into schools from farms out in Leesburg -- in a way, white trash. I felt I could be anywhere, at a party at the Kennedys', at a party out at Reston with the hillbillies, or in the suburbs mowing the lawns. I felt I could pass through those different classes at will."
Right now, if he could only get "Swimming in the Volcano" out of the way and get to the Virginia novel he wants to do, he says he'd be happy. ("By now it's been two years and it already feels like I've spent my life writing this novel I don't want to write.") His real ambition (the precise reverse of many a journalist on the eastern seaboard) is to use fiction to write more nonfiction: "I always thought I'd be a writer," but his dream, he says, was to work for a newspaper.
And, as for the peachy news writing assignment in Hong Kong, he says he'd do it in a minute, except "I got a dog. I love that dog and I've got a lot of emotional investment in it."