SERVICE AS A PEACE CORPS Volunteer for all the cross-cultural benefits, for all the lives it changes is in many ways a curse. The problem is: you never get over it. Ten or twenty years later, many RPCVs look back upon their service with a wistful sense of loss and disorientation. The mundanity of air-conditioned shopping centers and well-paved highways in America too often pales in comparison to the excitement of living abroad, to the fulfillment of a time when you felt appreciated and needed. With the Peace Corps behind one, life assumes an air of extended anti-climax. Many RPCV’s are consequently struck with incurable wanderlust. They’ve lost their bearings in the world.
It is a fact commonly accepted, then, that post-service readjustment back to the States is more difficult than leaving ever was. In Mark Brazaitis’s compelling second collection of stories, An American Affair, this readjustment never ends.
Brazaitis’s stories, winner of the 2004 George Garrett Fiction Prize, are not conventional Peace Corps tales, but explorations of the aftermath. The volunteers, farmers, nurses, aid workers, and writers who populate the twelve stories (not all of them Peace Corps, it should be noted) are united by the common travails of life in the developing world primarily Guatemala. They are united too by their compassion, by their aspirations to serve both America and their host country, as well as by their confusion. They have been changed by their time abroad, and recurring questions haunt them throughout their post-service lives: Where, if anywhere, do they now belong? Whom should they marry? What if they had married differently? Should they return home, or make a life in their host country? Could they have done more good, saved more people?
The characters are wonderfully complex. In “The Poet and The General,” a Central American tyrant known as “the Butcher of Bananera” cannot sleep at night without watching reruns of The Three Stooges. In “The Foreign Correspondent” an American journalist imagines the funeral of her Latin boyfriend and thinks, ““I loved him,” and alternately, “I didn’t know him.”
In “The Day and the Night of the Day” a professor conducting research in Guatemala, and experimenting with a separation from his wife in the States, witnesses the devastation of September 11th through the disorienting lens of a foreign setting. Desiring above all else not to be alone, he takes refuge in a bar, where a Guatemalan named Hector confronts him: “‘I am sorry about your country,’ Hector says. And, after a pause, he adds, ‘Now you know.’”
Indeed loneliness, and the fear of it, lies at the heart of many of these stories. For all the teeming vividness of Latin American street life in these stories, Brazaitis’s characters hover in their own existential bubbles, wondering how and where they might be happier. In the powerful title story, “An American Affair,” Terry brings up the subject of repatriation to his Guatemalan wife:
“I was thinking I might consider a job in the States,” he said. Paulina frowned and opened her mouth, no doubt about to object, but he continued, “Marco isn’t learning as much English as he should. Living in the Sates would help him. It wouldn’t have to be a long time. We could stay a few years, then move back here.”
She said, “You know how I feel about the United States of America.” She spoke the last words with emphasis and a scrunched expression, as if she’d bitten a lemon.”
Later, trying to acquire some of the fatalistic resiliency of his adopted country, Terry tells himself, “If he stayed in Guatemala the rest of his life, married to a woman he didn’t know, raising a son he felt estranged from, it wasn’t his fault. It was the way God wanted it.”
There is certainly thematic repetition here, but across the twelve stories it never feels redundant. Rather, the artistic effect is that of a Bach fugue: an energetic playing with the possibilities and variations of a theme. Brazaitis explores the depths of these lives from every conceivable angle from parents investigating the death of their writer son, killed while backpacking in Bolivia, or from a terminally ill cancer patient who revisits the village where she served thirty years before. Sometimes these experiments result in a bit of a stretch. The ambitious “The Life He Left Behind” unravels in a surreal way that recalls Cheever’s “The Swimmer”, but ultimately fails at the level of believability. Sometimes, frustratingly, a story such as “The Day and the Night of the Day” is not given enough development, and ends too abruptly the music cut off.
But in their originality, scope, and poignancy, there’s a great deal to enjoy and contemplate here. For those considering service in the Peace Corps, “An American Affair” should be required reading. Take these tales as a far-sighted warning not only of the challenges to expect during your two years abroad, but for the rest of your life.
Robert Rosenberg teaches writing at Bucknell University. He is the author of the novel, This Is Not Civilization.