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Authors: Bob Shacochis

Swimming in the Volcano

BOOK: Swimming in the Volcano
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Praise for
Swimming in the Volcano:

“A stunning tour de force ... In some of the most brilliantly sinuous and seductive prose being written today, Shacochis summons the spirits of guilt and innocence, of love and hate, of white and black, [and] of America and the Third World.”

(New York)

Swimming in the Volcano
is sharp, fluid storytelling ... [with] scenes of harsh power and immense range.... Shacochis has created an absorbing group of protagonists, and ... remarkable language [that] maintains the highest level of emotional melodrama amid an ever-thickening backdrop of political implication.”

San Francisco Chronicle

“Big, lush ... rich ...
Swimming in the Volcano
is a mural, a tapestry, a gallery. Shacochis projects a series of nightmarish, psychotropic, fatally beautiful impressions, [creating] an indelible impression of the state of mind that is St. Catherine.”

San Diego Union Tribune

“A dark novel reminiscent of
in its meditations on how the innocent become swept up in political foment, and of Faulkner in its rolling sentence structures that continually wrestle with contradictions.”


“Shacochis proves himself to be the rarest of contemporary American novelists, a writer with a worldview....
Swimming in the Volcano
is a reminder of literature's finest affirmation: that
itself is an exotic journey, a trip to an unknown island, a one-way ticket to the heart's interior.”

Conde Nast Traveler

Also by Bob Shacochis




Bob Shacochis

Copyright © 1993 by Bob Shacochis

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Any members of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or publishers who would like to obtain permission to include the work in an anthology, should send their inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003.

Printed in the United States of America
Published simultaneously in Canada

First published in 1993 in the United States by Charles Scribner's Sons and in Canada by Maxwell Macmillan Canada, Inc.

Printed by special arrangement with Simon & Schuster.

Excerpts from the following work have appeared in
Intro, Vogue, GQ, Outside
, and
Clockwatch Review

The author wishes to express his gratitude to the Florida Arts Council and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for their generous and timely support.

The author gratefully acknowledges permission to reprint excerpts from the following works:
Heather McHugh, “Have or Love” and “The Ghost” from
To the Quick
, copyright © 1987 by Heather McHugh.
Julian Evans,
Transit of Venus: Travels in the Pacific
, copyright © 1992 by Julian Evans. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books.
The Never-Ending
by Andrew Hudgins. Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Hudgins. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Co. All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's
imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication
Shacochis, Bob.
      Swimming in the volcano: a novel/Bob Shacochis.
          p. cm.
      eBook ISBN-13: 978-0-8021-9931-7
      1. Americans—Caribbean Area—Fiction. 2. Caribbean Area—Fiction.      I. Title.
PS3569.H284S94 2004
813′.54—dc22                            2003067576

Grove Press
841 Broadway
New York, NY 10003

Author's Note

The trilevel presentation of an imaginary West Indian dialect (provincial, standardized provincial, standard) is an intentional—and, the writer hopes, comprehensible—act of bridging between popular and conventional usage.



September 1976

On the northern end of the Caribbean island of St. Catherine, there is an active volcano, Mount Soufrière. Dormant since its last eruption in 1902, its massive crater had collected a brown hot lake of tropical rains, and magma formed a fiery island within the lake in a gradual reawakening not many years ago. La Soufrière, as if aware of her accelerating metamorphosis from beauty to beast, had been increasingly moody, an unpredictable and worrisome neighbor to the island's citizens. The government of St. Catherine responded by establishing a monitoring station, and the Ministry of Agriculture was prompted to send a man up Soufrière, the forest ranger Godfred Ballantyne, on a weekly basis to check the equipment housed on the volcano's rim.

Several months after the American economist Mitchell Wilson had been assigned to the ministry, he expressed an interest in seeing the volcano himself, and the chief agricultural officer arranged for Ballantyne to take the American up the mountain with him.

From the outskirts of Queenstown, the capital at the bottom of the island, they drove recklessly northward for over thirty miles, the Land Rover straining on a broken roadway of switchbacks and climbs, the flank of the volcano and its cloud-smothered peak sometimes in sight, rising glorious from the monotonous spread of jungle and surrounded by her court, the lesser mountains of the north. They stopped once, flagged to the roadside at Camell by apologetic national police, confident men, vain in their uniforms, leopard fatigues and burgundy berets. Their papers were examined and returned by the officer in charge, who joked with the forest ranger Ballantyne, talking to him as if he were a medical doctor assigned La Soufrière as a
patient, and acknowledged his white passenger with a perfunctory salute.

Two hours out from the city, they turned inland until the dirt road they bounced over ended in a breezy plantation of coconut palms. Wheel tracks flattened the underbrush ahead, two pale compressed lines that burrowed from sight within yards, and Ballantyne downshifted into their channel and drove ahead until the right front wheel slammed into an unseen hole. Wilson's hand flew up to keep himself from banging into the windshield.

“Ahlright,” Ballantyne said, and decisively set the emergency brake on the incline. Even after he had removed the key and pocketed it, the engine continued to stutter before it died with a pop. The fumes of the overheated engine filled the cab of the Rover, stinging Wilson's eyes and increasing the nausea he felt from the ride which was like being on a rowboat in open water. Ballantyne laid a hand on the white man's shoulder. When he realized the hand had no message to deliver, Wilson looked at it sideways, puzzled.

Ballantyne was an iron-muscled man, not large but stoutly built, possessing a rugger player's body best suited for pushing through walls of opponents. He leaned across the seat to make a show of scrutinizing the shoes on Wilson's feet. Then the ranger took his hand away and sat back, one thick arm draped on the steering wheel, still looking at Wilson, sizing him up, the white man becoming embarrassed by the close attention paid him, Ballantyne's sober eyes so clearly focused on his basic worth.

“What are we doing?”

“You cy-ahn run?” the ranger asked plainly. He glanced at his gold wristwatch.

From where they were in the palms the path to the volcano's summit rose more than four thousand feet in six miles, sometimes at a grade equal to a stepladder's, through lowland jungle, strands of bamboo and waist-high begonia, tropical rain forest, high elevation scrub, devil cane and grasses canyoned by old lava flows, then fields of perpetually glistening ferns before the cinder wasteland of the crown. Wilson thought the man was joking.

Ballantyne smiled, and his smile was a subtle transformation that domesticated him. “You believe so?” he said. He bounded out of the Rover and was running before Wilson could say another word.

In the first hour of their ascent Wilson was able to stay with him. The second hour, as the slope became more slippery and precarious, the ranger would be out of sight for long intervals, his head eventually visible, bobbing through the flora several hundred yards up the
trail. The weather changed from steamy to temperate, then chilled blasts of wind caught them as they came out of the forest onto the austere scarps and ridges where nothing tall could grow. For the final half hour he could see Ballantyne far ahead of him when the clouds permitted, loping across the dark lava and through the scrub onto the ugly cone, going up and up and up.

Wilson's clothes were clinging wet from sweat and sudden rain-showers by the time he reached the top, twenty minutes behind Ballantyne. The quick swirl of clouds provided minimum visibility— he knew that they were at elevation primarily because Ballantyne was no longer running, he had stopped and was waiting for him, his back sheltered against an outcropping of twisted rock to escape the cold gusts. Wilson sat down next to him, huddling into the same rift, feeling not so much in the tropics as in the Scottish highlands in April. The flood of mist rolled by at arm's length in front of them, swift and horizontal.

From his haversack the forest ranger rummaged out two sugar apples. As he bit into one with large teeth, he offered the other to Wilson. Because he was disoriented and beginning to wear down, Wilson's gaze lingered stupidly on the open bag in the dirt, seeing but not registering its remaining contents. The apple remained in front of him in the air, its skin vividly saffron in the black man's grip, the only color at the top of La Soufrière. Ballantyne raised his eyebrows and shrugged, dropping the fruit into Wilson's lap. Wilson picked it up and nibbled at its sweetness as they waited together in the dripping rocks with no thoughts to share, until the cloud they were inside of passed along so that they might have a view of what was below.

In time, as if the light around them came from candles surging with a fresh draft, the gloom brightened and the nimbostratus that was on the mountain began to drag off the far rim and tear into pieces, first a white edge of sunlight, then a distant patch of milky blue that was both sea and sky, next the circling shape of the burnt crown, and then, as though a lid had been pried and removed, the immense bore of the volcano's crater, shattering any sense of human proportion.

To Wilson, the scale seemed borrowed from another world—a fantasy land of fire giants, a geography more dreamlike and therefore more threatening than it actually appeared or was. The light spilled into the huge bowl and they could see across the span of the vent almost a mile to the sheer walls of the opposite side. There was no slope, only a raw precipice of rock that dropped straight for hundreds of feet to the surface of a doomed lake. The interior island appeared
incongruous, inappropriate and trashy, as if somehow an old coal barge had been abandoned here in the eye of disaster, the cargo still smoldering in the hold, latent, a glowing seedbed that would one day blossom with a ferocity that no one could imagine. Gliding down into the crater, a frigate bird rocketed skyward as it encountered the thermals above the island.

They were standing on the east rim. Looking down underneath the ceiling of staggered cumulus that had replaced the mist, Wilson could turn and see the ocean on all but the southern horizon. From here, he understood how manageable a country became when one looked down on it from a great height, and he understood that coming to St. Catherine from the United States produced the same effect in his thinking.

BOOK: Swimming in the Volcano
2.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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