By Colin Channer
Ballantine. 351 pp. Paperback, $13.95
With the publication of his first two novels, "Waiting in Vain" (1998) and "Satisfy My Soul" (2002), Colin Channer seemed destined to end up on the commercial fiction shelf somewhere between Bebe Moore Campbell and Eric Jerome Dickey. In "Passing Through," a collection of seven short stories, the Jamaican-born author keeps the racy cover images and sex scenes that characterized those novels but discards the buppie love story script.
Set on the fictional San Carlos, "an island fascinated by the subtleties of blood," this imaginative collection chronicles 100 years in the life of a community of interrelated characters. Hovering over the pear-shaped island is Mount Diablo, a volcano that reminds the islanders that nature ultimately has the upper hand. And hovering over their lives are the lingering racial order of colonialism and the messy march of progress. The stories should be read in order, and they nearly demand a family tree to keep track of characters who are at once robust and maddeningly inscrutable -- and many of whom are in search of racial clarity and some resolution of their doubts about sexuality, modernity and respectability.
The first story, "The High Priest of Love," which is set in the early 1900s, begins and ends with sex. Eddie Blackwell, a disgraced American priest, has been involved with Eugenia Campbell, a lovelorn biracial woman who is desperate to make a life with him. Blackwell, who is also of mixed heritage, wants no part of her, however, and boards a boat for the United States in search of a new life. "You're not a priest," he tells himself. "You're a man afloat. No one knows you." Like Channer's other characters, Blackwell teeters on the brink of self-discovery, unsure of what identity to claim. He invites women to his bed but never satisfies them. The final scene in the story finds him challenged by the fair-skinned Campbell, who has managed to come along on the first leg of the voyage, and a dark-skin prostitute. "You is a hard man in truth," he hears in his head. A violent menage a trois ensues, and both women end up pregnant.
Estrella Thompson, the 14-year-old protagonist of the second story, "The Girl With the Golden Shoes," embodies the push and pull of modernity. Readers of Jamaica Kincaid's fiction will find Estrella's restless yearnings and ambitions familiar. Expelled from her village because she allegedly cursed the fishing season, Estrella picks up where her grandfather Eddie Blackwell left off, embarking on a journey to find a new life. Set in the 1940s, this story is the most powerful in the book because Estrella's motives are so clear and the author's descriptions of the landscape and lore of San Carlos are quite vivid. Channer displays his considerable gift for language here -- his characters alternate between a Spanish dialect, Sancoche, and formal English. English is the language of dreams. Sancoche is the language of the land and of love and of sex.
Estrella speaks both. Barefoot throughout her trek, she is on the verge of adulthood, sounding strong and world-weary at times, vulnerable and scared at others. She is driven by a singular goal: to buy a new pair of shoes. Shoes, she reasons, will enable her to find a job and a respectable life. On her way to the town of Seville, she is coerced into having sex, for which she gets money for the English shoes she desires. At journey's end, she meets St. William Rawle and becomes his live-in maid.
In the next story, "Passing Through," it becomes clear that she is much more than that. Set in the late 1950s, when San Carlos has become a tourist spot, this title story explores racial passing more fully. Its wealthy and respectable multiracial characters lead the kind of lives that Estrella so desperately seeks. They also harbor ideas and secrets about race and lineage that lead them to engage in extramarital affairs. St. William Rawle, whose crackpot letters open each story, is at the center of a household compromised by interracial and interclass dalliances. When he and his wife, Rebecca Salan, along with two American tourists and members of San Carlos's mostly non-black elite, gather at a party one evening, the conversation turns first to politics and then to sex and race. "We all want to be the negrita, you know, and that is what our husbands want too," says Rebecca . "But it's the very thing we're not supposed to be. . . . I've never heard of anybody with a mistress who is white." With the exception of "Judgment Day," the latter stories in the collection are less satisfying because they lack the sense of tension and unease at the center of the earlier ones. The modern-day characters, most of whom are descendants of Eddie Blackwell, do not worry so much about the past and are on surer footing when it comes to love and race. In "Judgment Day," the closing story, identities are clarified and tangled relationships are straightened out as Mount Diablo erupts on present-day San Carlos. Finally, in the face of such apocalyptic change, the pretense of trying to pass racially hardly seems worth the effort.
Channer is a gifted storyteller. He marshals the weighty themes of love, sex, race, class and progress into an epic and vibrant narrative. At times, his stories might seem ragged and abrupt as characters flit back and forth from margin to center or disappear entirely. But such uncertainty and movement are fitting for people who pass through a century, in the meantime transmitting restlessness, discontent and an obsession with bloodlines.