Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Familiar Situation

Few of us in "Gen X" or "Gen Y" know about the historical conflicts and ongoing strife in El Salvador. Many of us have no idea that our government helped finance and arm revolutionary forces in that country; forces that eventually formed death squads and militias that continue to terrorize the people to this day. It is a situation, sad to say, that is being repeated today in the middle east with the attempted democratization of Iraq. As Peter Maass of The New York Times Magazine said, "The template for Iraq today is not Vietnam, with which it has often been compared, but El Salvador."

I try, difficult as it may be, to remain politically neutral in this blog, wanting to focus on the literature and not my own or any one Else's political inclinations. But when one reads a book like David Corbett's "Blood of Paradise", it becomes impossible to remain neutral. The backdrop for this unrelenting and brutal story is modern El Salvador, where militias and death squads terrorize innocent people and the corrupt government is run by the wealthy minority. This government, by all appearances was formed by "free elections" set up by none other than the US government. When the elections went sideways and the puppet party supported by the US did not win, the US turned its allegiance to the opposing party, made up of many of the remaining members of the former military and dictatorship. The people of El Salvador continue to try to hold free elections, but the militias and death squads terrorize the civilians into keeping the ARENA party in power, or staying away from the polls all together.

Corbett's story takes Jude McManus, an Executive Protection Specialist, or bodyguard, working in El Salvador when he is visited by a ghost from his father's past. This ghost, who may or may not be on the run from the long arm of the US law, manages to talk Jude into helping him in a scheme with dubious motivations. Jude's father was a police officer in Chicago involved a decade ago in a police scandal that left him dead, one officer disgraced, and Bill Mavasio, Jude's ghost, on the lamb. Malvasio is the perfect noir villain; at times likable and sympathetic, but ultimately devious and pure evil. He is, as it turns out, the mastermind villain behind the enormous body count in Corbett's "Done for a Dime".

Jude's assignment is to protect a hydrologist who is studying aquifer draw-down linked to a bottling plant in El Salvador. The parties with vested interest in this bottling plant and the money it represents are the heartless and terrifying people who have enlisted the help of Bill Malvasio to ensure that the plans for the expansion of the bottling plant do not face any opposition. These people, the rich and powerful minority of the country, care only for their own interests, and nothing for the welfare of the desperately poor majority who have no recourse when their resources and livelihoods are threatened. Those that try to use their voice to effect change when their water supply dries up end up kidnapped, murdered, or both. And this is where Malvasio comes in.

Malvasio's devious plot to eliminate the hydrologist Jude is protecting, keep his bosses happy, and protect his own hide pulls Jude into a roiling quagmire that will force him to make heartbreaking sacrifices and ultimately fight for his life. The story culminates in a brutal shoot-out with tragic results. The story of Jude's unfortunate path and internal conflicts is told with stark clarity by Corbett, who adapted it loosely from the Greek tragedy "Philoctetes" by Socrates. Corbett's language is heartbreaking, brutal and uncompromising, forcing the reader to turn each page faster and faster as the pace of the story quickens. Every so often a book comes along that makes you sweat with anticipation while you read it and itch to get back to it while you are not. "Blood of Paradise" just so happens to be one of those books.

David Corbett is a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, and can be seen at literary events and readings around the city. His other two novels are "The Devil's Readhead" and "Done for a Dime", both available in trade paperback.