||by Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 197576)
Reviewed by Tim Carroll (Nigeria 196466)
For those of us who have served in Haiti or spent considerable time there, it is important to read the Preface of The Immaculate Invasion, a new book by the National Book Award winner RPCV Bob Shacochis. The first five words are, "This is a book about America . . . "
For those searching for a book about Haiti, this will satisfy only the reader who already knows the terrible and unchanging realities of the country. In this book Haiti serves as an emotional backdrop, in front of which Shacochis plays out the recent conflict, giving a new meaning to the expression, "a theater of war." The warlords on both sides acting out their sad roles heighten the daily drama of merely staying alive in the Second Oldest Republic in the New World. But nothing changes for the beleaguered population.
Another note of caution to the reader is that, like Viet Nam, as Shacochis states, one must separate policy from the foot soldier. It is possible to find heroes in an unheroic situation. Only the small-minded could think otherwise.
Military action as prose poem
Having become the global superpower, the United States was moved to recraft its foreign policy less on the model of Rome, with its garrisoned legions imposing imperial will, but rather more like Venice, assuring open lanes for its commerce, valued above all else by a majority of its voting people. An extension of this is to keep unworthies from our sacred borders and unwanted substance out of the hands of the addicted. Which lands a considerable U.S. military force, as Shacochis writes, "here at the boneyard carnival that was Haiti." We are guided through this confusion by a storyteller of remarkable skill. The book is never far from being a prose poem. When ones pulse rate is accelerated by the written word, you know you are dealing with more than "journotrash." Shacochis gets it right. And after just enough narrative to make it clear this is not only a good read but also an important issue to understand, this is how he baptizes the book:
A lanky, rope-muscled blond strutted into the room and sat down on the other side of the horseshoe bar, nodding at Ed and me. He had burning eyes and a con man's charm, the face of a cutthroat surfer from Malibu, and a mouth like a furnace stoked with amphetamines. "How goes it with the Immaculate Invasion?" he asked, smiling wickedly. Cameron had christened the beast, freeing it from the weight of original sin.
Making sense of chaos
Shacochis's ability to report the events of an invasion is canny. The sense of omnipresence he portrays is believable (and, at times, makes sense of chaos), and yet raises the question: how could a reporter get, with such certainty, the accurate, fully detailed account of all this muddle, right there, in the midst of the bedlam? It raises the tiniest red flag that certain truths have been selected over certain others, that complexities have been smoothly unwrinkled, and that, quite possibly, unknowns have been swept away in the name of clarity.
However, few war novels, or non-fiction in the genre, carry better written passages of the fear, anger, and frustration of fighting men. You know these guys when you're finished with the book. As for the author, his autobiographical journey, loaded up with epiphani, is irresistible. Self-effacing, wonderfully chagrined about situations he has thoughtlessly placed himself in, and full of increasing awe yes, this obvious liberal about the Special Forces types, the snake eaters, who have, against his better judgment, stolen his heart, we meet an author we'd love to join for dinner.
He does a classic riff on the immaculate Jimmy Carter who intervenes just before a traditional military operation is about to be launched. From a military point of view, it could not have been more disastrous. From a writing point of view, it presents an opportunity to display the ra le da le of the author's skill.
A sense of overwhelming sadness
For all of that, The Immaculate Invasion does not give the reader any lasting satisfaction, and that may be the nature of the beast. This impossible country, unintelligible to its citizenry, mystifying to a foreign military machine, completely out of sync with our own curious model of leadership, makes for too much shadowplay. As Shacochis repeatedly states, all our military guys wanted was a logical, straightforward enemy. They didnt get that, and the reader doesn't get much more than some unforgettable vignettes and a sense of overwhelming sadness. How do you write about nothing happening, nothing changing, nothing improving, nothing helping? Everyone, from Clinton on down, would have loved so much more in the way of a result. Even the readers.
Quibbling over minutia
Because it is a work of fine fettle, quibbling over minutia is inappropriate, but inevitable. The author should not describe Jackie O as "a major collector of Haitian art," when but three pieces were listed in her final inventory. Nor should he completely escape criticism for the geographic error of saying, "a few miles past Limbe, Route Nationle One crested a final ridge and foreshadowed its terminus." Since he has been describing the trip northward across the country from Port-au-Prince, he has it backward. That mountain gap is a few miles prior to arriving in Limbe, as you drive toward the Cap.
No true ending
By his own definition of what the book is about again the Preface, Shacochis has successfully completed his oeuvre. He argues that when the military gets involved in the no man's land of OTWs (operations other than war), "there are . . . no true endings." While he has been true to the rules he has set out, he leaves the reader with a sense of an unfinished symphony. It's so good, you want more, you want conclusions. We want a traditional war, to win or lose, and then get over.
But life no longer works like that. He copes with this by creating a work of art that befits the times. The Immaculate Invasion will be a book often harkened to in our new century as one which set the standard for telling us about war the new-fangled way. It's all part of his Darwinist lucidity. Be smart like him. Get the book.
Tim Carroll served for several years in Poland and Russia (199195) as a Peace Corps Country Director. He currently works for the Justice Department is Washington, D.C.