by Jim Toner (Sri Lanka 198991)
The University of Georgia Press
Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 199798
LIKE MANY PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS, Jim Toner received a visit from his father during his two years of overseas service. John Toner, a retired judge from Ohio, decided on a whim to go to Sri Lanka in 1990 to see his thirty-four year old son Jimmy. What makes the experience worthy of a book, according to the author, are some inherent problems with the visit itself. Johns lifestyle has been sharply molded by a devout Irish-Catholic upbringing, a life-long career as a Cleveland judge, and the social and economic support of friends and family in the United States. How his father will fare in one of the least developed, heavily congested, and most violent nations in south Asia, Toner muses in Serendib, is a question he is almost afraid to ask. And more poignant is the matter of Toners relationship with his father. The youngest of seven children, the author who has spent virtually no time alone with his father will suddenly be thrust into the frightening position of having a months time alone with him. Toner hopes the experience will strengthen the somewhat tenuous bond between them.
One of the more thought-inspiring elements of Serendib, is the way John repeatedly refers to Jim and his wife another Peace Corps Volunteer as you kids. It spotlights the role reversal that parents share with their children who, as international volunteers, assume the parents responsibility of looking out for the well-being of their loved ones. In Sri Lanka, John is actually the kid who requires supervision. Hours after Johns arrival, Toner recognizes his fathers resolution not to leave his sheltered hotel room in Colombo: This is what my dad would want . . . . . We could watch CNN, order up scrambled eggs, gaze out our window during cocktail hour. After a month my dad could buy slides in the gift shop and, back in America, lie to his friends, This is slide of a jungle waterfall, thats when the kids and I rode elephants for three days, eating nothing but bamboo and grubs. Realizing that developing a meaningful relationship with his father will mean leaving this world, Toner encourages him to board an overly crowded bus, bound for the tea plantations in the central hill country, where one of Toners friends lives. There is much at stake and, no matter how frightening it may be, the author pushes his father, as he must.
Toner carefully integrates the personal impact of traveling with his father sharing memories of childhood and the initial awkwardness that exists between himself and John with descriptions of Sri Lanka: security checkpoints outside the capital, a dishonest jewel merchant, and a visit to a world-famous Buddhist temple in Kandy. The line running between these two stories is the life of John Toner, who must accustom himself to spending time with his youngest son while simultaneously adjusting to a world outside his familiar hometown of Cleveland. He falls prey to the clumsiness of an American too used to Western cultural trappings: mispronouncing Tamil names, expressing outrage at a dubious-looking outhouse, invoking Jesus to save him from flies and the heat and, finally, collapsing hilariously through a cane chair in the middle of a pre-meal prayer. But, Toner gently writes, over the next few days, bit by bit, I saw my father meet Sri Lanka. He mastered the art of finger eating and even asked for seconds. He studied the grandmother cleaning rice in the kitchen, at first standing over her blocking the doorway, later on his own hands next to her by the fire, helping her pick out stones.
His sensitivity and compassion for his father are obvious; the memoir does not aspire to the literary, but maintains a straightforward, humorous, and sincere prose that hopes to and successfully does communicate the experiences of his and Johns mutual growth. Toner even watches as his rosary beads-toting father exhibits flexibility by participating in a Hindi temple ritual and by carrying a small Buddha statue in his pocket.
Through the memoir, the authors own recollections of childhood life in a large family encourage us to recognize this small and war-torn country as the unexpected proving ground where the two men can leave their personal histories behind to establish a new, closer relationship. The story closes in the town where Toner and his wife have been struggling to survive as English teachers in the face of curfews imposed by a Sinhalese rebellion group, and the whims of a self-absorbed principal who has already ousted three other Volunteers. John Toner turns out to be a hit with his sons class, singing songs and playing games with the children. Finally, as the class quiets, he addresses them, saying: Yep, hes a good one, my Jimmy. Hes a teacher, thats for sure, and I guess were proud of him. Guess well keep him. For Toner author, teacher, and sonit is the moment he had hoped for. He reaches out and his father, who had flinched upon their first contact at the airport, does not draw back.
It is impossible to finish Serendib without feeling that meaningful relationships are indeed possible (or recoverable) in the world. A few scenes have been staged, it seems, for the purpose of evoking certain emotions. And the grating Volunteer Jewel E. Jewel would have been better left out of these pages. The latter is a compliment of sorts since Toners ear for dialogue is excellent even as the actual dialogue of PCV Jewel is not. However, the relationship that develops between the author and his father has an authenticity that could only be accomplished by the experience of familiar figures meeting under unique circumstances. For any Peace Corps Volunteer who has been visited by a family member, the success story of the Toners might well reflect the opportunities of taking advantage of overseas service by rediscovering relationships they thought they knew so well in some new and unusual places.
Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 19998) is coordinating the readings by Peace Corps writers at the 40th Anniversary Conference. If you are interested in reading at the conference, please e-mail him at Joe_Kovacs@hotmail.com.