Spanning the early 1900s up to modern times, the stories trace the intersecting lives of travelers, expatriates, and local folks in ways that shock, illuminate, and reveal. From the American photographer who finds her world disturbed by new forms of love and lust, to a charismatic priest confronted by the earthly perks of fame and stardom, the diverse mix of characters are united by the universal search for love and understanding—a challenge on an island simmering with issues of politics, power, and race.
Written with poetic grace and titillating candor, each story shines against its own tableau—World War II, the rise of Fidel Castro, Mt. Pelée devastating Martinique, import-export trading, Bob Marley in the days before his music echoed all around the world. As men and women fall in love, marry and remarry, face moral conflicts and new identities, the volcano sees it all. From plantation days to the roots of revolution, it is a silent witness to the turbulent century that engulfs this tiny island of eternal humor, passion, and allure.
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About the Author
Waiting. In 1998, his influential debut novel Waiting in Vain was selected as a Critic’s Choice by the Washington Post Book
World, which described it as a “clear redefinition of the CaribbeaN novel.” Waiting in Vain was also selected as Book of the
Summer by Time Out New York and excerpted in Hot Spots: The Best Erotic Writing in Modern Fiction, which placed Mr. Channer in the company of writers such as Russell Banks, E. L. Doctorow, Don DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace.
Described as “Bob Marley with a pen instead of Gibson guitar” by award-winning poet and critic Kwame Dawes, Mr. Channer
was born in Jamaica and lives in New York. He is the founder and artistic director of the Calabash International Literary Festival (calabashfestival.org), the only annual international literary festival in the Caribbean. Mr. Channer is the bass player in the reggae band Pipecock Jaxxon and has taught fiction writing workshops in Jamaica, London and New York.
For more information visit colinchanner.com or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He answers all his mail himself.
Read an Excerpt
I’m writing to express a very grave concern. Specifically, someone needs to take the younger generation in hand. They need some straightening out.
When I was a young man, which was a long time ago—I am at present ninety-five and holding—young women cared about their undergarments. This is no longer so, it seems; and I’m highly disappointed. Two nights ago I had the exquisite pleasure of a frolic with a young American miss who was here on Spring Break, a lovely student of mathematics, who brought along a friend for good measure. I was quite excited, you see. I’m still fascinated by the range of expression afforded by the ménage. But I am not consistently able to provide enough exertive force, having overextended, so to speak, in the days of my youth.
However, I’ve been in good nick of late and so I looked forward to the challenge. So can you imagine my disappointment when my playmates showed themselves to be the wearers of undergarments that looked like men’s briefs? And so great was my distress, that I was unable to perform.
It is clear to me that this is yet another example of what happens when children have been left alone to raise themselves. Certain crucial bits of information are not passed down.
St. William Rawle
THE HIGH PRIEST OF LOVE
In white, at dusk, on the final day of all that he had known to be his life, Eddie Blackwell left Eugenia sleeping in a ball of naked flesh and made two strides across the planking to the open door.
He was broad-shouldered and compact with wavy, center-parted hair, and there was something in the way he slightly hunched and kept his pelvis taut that marked him as the kind of man who’d taken drinks in places where the patrons settled arguments by dropping in a crouch.
He was long-faced, with tight skin, and if you saw him in a quarter pose, even if your view was just a glance, you’d note the angle of his cheeks, the way they jutted then descended in a scoop along his jaw, how they tapered thinly from his eyes toward his ears as if they were designed to swim.
Eddie Blackwell’s hut was built on stilts on marshy ground with pilings driven deeply in a natural bank of mud and sand along the sloping crescent where the River Janga made its final curve before it poured into the belly of a dark lagoon—a mangled mass of mangrove roots and hidden channels with a secret opening to the minty waters of the Caribbean Sea.
In the shadow of the mangroves, Eddie, an American who’d lived in the West Indies for the most fulfilling years of his chaotic life, could see a buzz of trembling lights.
An armada of canoes had come together overnight, and he could see now in the water right below him pink and yellow petals from the flowers that the people of New Lagos had released into the stream. On the other bank, a little string of boats constructed from banana leaves were tangled in the reeds.
A light emerged out of the pulsing mass of brightness and began to shimmer up the stream toward him. And, living as he did before the camera was a common object, he built a book of memories in his mind.
In deep focus, he looked east across the marsh toward the hills, which in the lifting darkness had begun to show their edges in the bluish-gray collage of earth and sky. Dark and undulating, they approached from either side, a gentle rise and fall that gathered force, congealing in the cratered cone of Mt. Diablo, the volcano that had caused implosions in his life.
Eugenia wasn’t sleeping. This he knew. And as he thought again about the multistranded knotting of her complicated love, he panned now to the north. From his elevation he could see the marshland merging with repeated frames of cattle farms and cane.
Satisfied, he walked around the deck, which, like the roof was shaded by an overhang of thatch. He looked toward the south in the direction of Seville, where he’d lived for seven years. The little capital was shadowed. But even in the brightest light it would have been obscured by stands of trees.
From a wooden box below the window ledge, he took a pewter flask, poured a drink and gripped the rail a little tighter, waiting for the light.
He slowly drank until the darkness broke apart and he could see the steeple of his church, a long white-shafted arrow pointed at the sky, and the school above the town that he’d built with funds obtained in secret from the father of the girl.
With his eyes, he drew a line from Mt. Diablo to the steeple of the church. A flow of superheated ash and rocks could swamp it very quickly. The year before, in Martinique, Mt. Pelée blew . . . nearly thirty thousand dead. Six months later, in St. Vincent, Soufrière surprised the world again . . . nearly sixteen hundred more.
Eugenia stirred behind him and temptation snaked along his guts. He heard the sheets against her shoulders, the crackle of the matting in the pallet when she turned. And he braced himself for an eruption of her young, volcanic love—vows of deep affection swirling with a mass of jagged taunts, since it had seemed unfair to her that he’d allowed his other obligations, which he didn’t always keep, to leave her damp and longing.
Giving partial vent to his desires, he began to think of what would happen if he turned. In his mind, he pulled the parted shutters wide and reached inside the darkened room.
His breathing getting short, he saw his body leaning, the reaching of his arm, saw her lying on her side, her face toward the hairy wall, a hand beneath her face, the other clamped between her knees, and then his trembling hand now climbing up the gradient of her soft upslanted thigh, then sledding from her hip into the hollow of her waist, and now his fingers walking up the rung of bones along her ribs into the fatty dampness of her breasts as he wondered if she would forgive him if he showed some sign of willingness to try.
Another sip, he thought, would bring the courage to resist his fears and climb across the ledge into the room; there, he would disrobe himself of collar, cape and vestments. But that would not be right.
Antonio, his confidante and helper for the last four years, would be arriving soon, and Father Eddie’s need for women—the reason that his flock had made a present of this nest above the marsh—was a fairly open secret guarded by a people who believed that chastity was not the most important talent of a priest. For them it was more crucial to be loyal and discreet.
When he heard Antonio call his name, the young priest made his way toward the front, where he could see the older man, who was standing upright in a striped canoe, thirty feet below, white-haired, dark and slender.
“Father, everything okay?”
The young priest raised his hand, commanding silence, and answered in a voice that was low but not a whisper that his trunks had been transported from the rectory to the wharf and that he had no other luggage.
He didn’t want the man to see the girl.
Eugenia was young. Just seventeen. But already quite experienced. She was long-haired and full bodied, with an elongated nose that curved like a banana, and eyes with heavy lids. When you saw her naked from the side it always struck you that her breasts and buttocks were connected, that if you traced the undercarriage of her large, uptilted breasts and slanted with your eyes across her ribs you’d end up at the point at which her ass extruded from her body in a long, down-drafting line.
As Father Eddie fussled with the ladder, which was made of wood and rope, Eugenia slipped her hands beneath her head and crossed her ankles on the pallet, her eyes in hazy focus but directed at the steeply angled roof, disappointed after struggling in some way or other since the age of twelve to make her first appearance is this legendary bed.
Beside her on the pillow was an envelope. Money? Well, that wasn’t why she came. She tossed the envelope. By accident it flew outside the window. Why she came was leaving. Why she came was on the verge of flight.
From outside and down below she heard Antonio’s voice again, “Everything okay?”
And being petulant and disappointed, she replied, “Everything is not okay. I’ve been forsaken.”
“That’s not true,” came the priest’s reply, his smoky voice now tense but weary.
She wiped her face; but could not stop herself from crying.
“You haven’t been forsaken,” came his voice again, damp this time and sorry. “You’re a wonderful girl. God loves you. God loves you.”
“Not as much as I love you,” she blurted with a force that drew her upright in the pallet.
“More. Much more. Much more,” came his contemplative answer. “Much more. Much more than that.”
“I don’t believe you. Prove it. Prove it now. I asked you to prove it last night and what did you do? You did nothing. You smoked and drank and slept as if I had no bloody use. And instead of leaving you I stayed. I’m not a wonderful girl. I’m a bloody stupid girl because I let you make a fool of me.”
She was resting on her elbows and, for the first time in their conversation, she allowed herself to look. At first she didn’t want to see him, afraid of what she might have felt the urge to do. There were times at which her temper took control of her the way a body could be wracked with cramps and fevers. When this happened, her anger could remain aflame for days.
She’d expected him to leave more quickly. But he’d lingered; and, as she neared the limits of her self-control, she felt as if she’d been provoked.
Through the door she saw his forehead sinking, leaving her to stare into the emptiness between the planking and the overhanging thatch—two lines, one straight, one jagged, with nothing in between until his answer filled the space.
“If you don’t believe, the fault is mine,” he said with force so that his voice would carry, accepting that their privacy was gone.
“I hate you,” she responded.
By this point she was sitting on the pallet with her back toward the window and her face toward the door.
Her body wilted and she placed her elbows on her knees, breasts tugging at her sternum with their weight. Her dark hair fell forward, the ends so long they touched the floor, and as she glanced up from behind the spray, he reappeared.
His incarnation struck her with the instant optimism of the gambler who decides to bet the world against a fleeting sign of luck. And although she couldn’t see his features fully in the light, his skin of yellow-brown, which had deepened in the heat to somewhat of a reddish-gold, she imagined that his face was flushed with love.
“Please try and understand,” he told her. “I didn’t make this world. If I did, then this is not the way that things would be.”
“How would they be?” she asked, convinced that he was speaking vaguely for Antonio’s sake.
“If I answered that, I’d be putting myself in the place of God and that wouldn’t be right.”
“But I worship you.”
“That is just a saying. I’m not worthy of worship. Neither am I worthy of your love.”
“But you are.”
She wanted to approach him, but she knew that this would not be right. And rightness was a thing he valued much.
“My love,” she muttered, as her passions crystallized into a plan.
“I love you. Do you love me too?”
After a pause, he answered quickly as he disappeared, “I do.”
She closed the door and shutters and lay down in the dark. Gray light seeped between the gaps along the hairy boards that made the walls. And in their stream now floated schools of dust and smoke—dust that he’d aroused with movement, smoke from his big cigars.
If he wouldn’t have her, she thought, then she would have herself. She used her fingertips to make her rosy nipples hard and traced her nails across her arms and thighs to make her body flame with prickled flesh. And as she heard the splashing of the oars beneath her spurting breath, she continued to enjoy herself, each touch exciting her immensely. It felt to her as if the skin that formed her aureoles had been stretched across her length—upholstered tightly—and that her fingers had been dipped in mint. And as the splashing of the oars grew softer and the hum of blood inside her ears became a roar, she feather-touched herself along the shaft of muscle in her abdomen toward her arrowhead of pubic hair, wishing she were made of water, tightly focused on the image of his body leaving sperm and perspiration in its wake. “I’ll find a way to follow you,” she moaned and muttered. “You’ll never get away.”