Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Swimming in the Volcano

A Novel

by Bob Shacochis

Swimming in the Volcano provides a feast; it is a book heady with language and thick with story . . . [leaving] the reader feeling exhilarated. . . . This is the finest first novel I have read in many years.” —William O’Rourke, The Chicago Tribune

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 528
  • Publication Date May 18, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4131-6
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

Winner of the National Book Award for First Fiction for Easy in the Islands, Bob Shacochis returns to the islands with Swimming in the Volcano, a “splendid first novel” (Library Journal) possessed of the same beauty as the places and people of the Caribbean.

Set on the fictional Caribbean island of St. Catherine, an American expatriate becomes unwittingly embroiled in an internecine war between rival factions of the government. Into this potentially explosive scene enters a woman once loved and lost, but who remains a powerful temptation—one that proves impossible to resist.

At once an enchanting love story and a superbly sophisticated political novel about the fruits of imperialism in the twentieth century, Swimming in the Volcano is as brutally seductive a novel as the world it evokes.

Tags Literary


“Stunning . . . some of the most brilliantly seductive prose being written today.” —New York Newsday

“Scores of island people, from conspiring politicians to barbers on the beach, sprawl across the pages like oleander and hibiscus . . . each of [the book’s] scenes is expertly wrought.” —The New York Times Book Review

Swimming in the Volcano provides a feast; it is a book heady with language and thick with story . . . [leaving] the reader feeling exhilarated. . . . This is the finest first novel I have read in many years.” —William O’Rourke, The Chicago Tribune

Swimming in the Volcano is a huge book, a sinister epic, the definitive anatomy of a fully imagined little world.” —GQ


A Finalist for the National Book Award


Chapter 1

Start here, on Mount Windsor, locally known as Ooah Mountain, where the brakes went out on Miss Defy, Isaac’s taxi, on the way to pick up Johnnie at the airport. Isaac stomped the floor pedal at that bleak moment of discovery as if it were attached to a bass drum, and he turned to look at Mitchell for solace, his eyes glazed with a fear that was altogether theological in depth.

“Serious mahl-function takin place, Wilson.”

They had just crested the mountain in the old Comet and there was no going back. The Comet, a mostly red vehicle, had survived more than a half-dozen owners known to Isaac, and, having been imported from Newark long ago, a variety of climates and the traffic of two distinct worlds and automotive practices. If there was a limit to the Comet’s tenacity, an inevitable challenge to its lifespan, this seemed to be it.

They had only begun the two-mile descent toward Brandon Vale and the airport when the brake pedal squirted fluid down onto Isaac’s ankle the first time he tapped it—a viscous, chocolaty coconut oil which a mechanic friend of Isaac’s assured him had the correct hydraulic properties and could be substituted for the real stuff, no longer available on the island for a reason nobody even bothered to analyze. Section by section, level by level, the two-lane road turned to admire itself as it somersaulted down the mountain, a crooked series of highway acrobatics, dodges, and loops, uncoiling from the jungled chute at the summit, downward along unforgiving cliffs that dropped into the sea and, at a lesser height, into the muck of mangrove swamps.

It was immediately clear to Mitchell that Isaac was determined to take the Comet all the way to the bottom, race death down Ooah Mountain and live for years off the legend safe on the bar stools of St. Catherine. As the car picked up speed toward the first unfriendly curve, Mitchell vaulted into the backseat and crouched on the floor, throwing empty Ju-C bottles out the window so they wouldn’t crystallize in his face as they did in his imagination, salting his flesh during the impending crash. From his position behind the seat he coached Isaac, warning him to downshift.

“No no, mahn. De engine buhn right up.”

“This won’t do,” Mitchell complained. “This won’t do.” He thought Isaac should put the car into the mountainside, the sooner the better. Isaac gave him a quick look of scorn over his shoulder.

“You pay fah repair? Eh?” Isaac sadly shook his head as they began to enter the turn. “I ain goin do it,” he said.

Isaac loved the Comet dearly and it would have been pointless to hold this refusal against him. Besides, the roadway was lined with concreted drainage ditches, three feet across and two deep, which meant the Comet would have to sacrifice at least an axle and an oil pan before it could plow into the hard cushion of the embankment. Running off the road was a dire option, and yet, somewhere ahead, it was their fate, waiting for them to appear on the scene.

Then too, the car had been manufactured in the United States and there was a magic in that fact that Isaac clung to and believed in. By owning the Comet outright after a year of humping bananas off other people’s land, Isaac owned a part of the optimisms of the north, the guarantees of competency, the possibility that if he treated the car with responsible care, one day he’d find himself summoned to the Comet’s homeland, no point in fretting over the details of how this would happen, except maybe with a few expenses paid, and there he would be introduced to the opportunity for the unlimited advancement he had mentally prepared himself for. This Isaac believed in absolutely. This was credo, this was gospel, prophecy, everything, and he would not fail in its pursuit. This was manifest destiny trickling south. It had happened to his cousin Robbie, the weaver, and to his brother-in-law Larris, the musician. It had happened to Mr. McPherson, the boat captain, and to countless others. If you behaved yourself and kept ready, it would happen the same to you. People who didn’t behave had lost faith, committing the blasphemy of despair. They had excommunicated themselves from this ladder of salvation and were condemned to circling the island forever, circling, circling—big wheels on a small track.

So Isaac had puttied in the galaxy of rust holes on the fenders, sanded the blemishes day after day until they were as smooth as the inner lip of a conch shell. The original paint job had faded into a chalky brick color, unmatchable, and the Comet’s northern prudence relinquished itself to an island style. The fenders and hubcaps were brushstroked with housepaint, a yellow enamel, glossy as buttercups. Glued to the upper trim of the front and rear windows, a fringe of red and green pompons produced a peculiar bedroom effect within the otherwise businesslike interior of the car, which doubled as a taxi only when Isaac was in the mood. Cracks in the vinyl seats were duct-taped together. On each door the Scuffletown sign painter calligraphed the name, all capital letters in flowing script, that Isaac had chosen for the car in honor of some oblique but universal political sentiment. Miss Defy. Her maintenance was as near to perfect as Isaac had a right to insist upon, given his low resources, and the collection of spare and spent parts he kept in the trunk rose or fell like an economic indicator for the entire island.

Mounted up front, a fourthhand radio-cassette player broadcasted continuous pulsation into the atmosphere. As crucial to the operation of Isaac’s Comet as the hand-cut gaskets on the engine block and the sparks in the cylinders, the unit had been mailed down from Brooklyn by the émigré cousin Robbie, said to now be rich enough to petition for generosity. Isaac had installed it directly after retrieving the package from the Customshouse—labeled Broken! Don’t Work! for a reduction on the duty tax. He had an arrangement with an eight-year-old nephew, who in exchange for driving lessons slept nightly in Miss Defy so that the music and everything else that was the Comet’s identity would stay put, his own for the time being, protected from the sticky and ravenous fingers of Scuffletown.

Only two hours earlier they had ended a long night of rum sweetened with Isaac’s ananci stories, island fairy tales and convoluted nonsensical narratives about an ancient feud between a donkey and a monkey. Mitchell had ridden the bed like a carnival horror, spinning and bumping through the remaining minutes of the night while Johnnie, it seemed, gazed down upon his agony with the beatific face of a Madonna. Isaac had wobbled out to the Comet parked up the slope on the roadside, rejecting the spare room, fallen unconscious on the front seat with the driver’s door open, the shoes on his feet only inches away from any traffic that passed. When the alarm clock sounded on the stage of Mitchell’s nightmares, he showered and dressed and went to rouse Isaac, cradled in Miss Defy, his hands tucked securely into the top of his pants, his head hanging off the seat, his mouth frozen open and his remarkably pink tongue sagging out like a thick slice of bologna. Mitchell woke him by clicking on the radio: one station, one brave volume, and more and more for the past week, an old song, the “Edison Banks Calypso,” pleading with young Mr. Banks to return from his studies at Gray’s Inn, to finish his lawyering degree and come home and pick up the torch of justice once more. The song playfully warned of the danger of becoming a student-for-life, and urged him to come back to the throne of his love on the island of St. Catherine, calling across the sea, penetrating his self-exile, asking for him to recognize the ripeness of the time, the early hours of a new day, an age for poets, heroes, patriots. He had indeed harkened to the song and come home to have his life rattled and his head beaten for two years of mobilizing the opposition against Delwyn Pepper, who had sodomized the nation for almost a decade, and in the end Banks had won an election that everyone predicted would be bloody but was not, at the price of an unsavory coalition of factions. The song debuted four years ago and was earning a lot of replay on the government station to celebrate the first anniversary of Banks’ tenure as prime minister, and the invisible successes of the new ruling party, the People’s Evolutionary Alliance of St. Catherine. Now, rolling down the mountain in Miss Defy, the song was requested again, the jockey announced with transparent enthusiasm, and its chorus blared into Mitchell’s skull from out of the door speaker,

Come take de swell from me lil boy’s belly

Take de cruel hand from me lil gy-url’s skirt

Lift de sufferin, strike ol’ massa

Save me heart from dis hurt, farty, stuttering horns and rapid patois distorted by volume into a palpable electronic throb, a continuous threat of audio-aneurism, blending somewhere under his chin with the awful sound of tires losing traction. A wave of centrifugal thrust rose and rose and receded the length of his prone body as they made the curve and swung out onto the next short straightaway. Mitchell raised his head above the seat and remarked that this was it, that they were dead, that these were their last quick moments on earth, and would Isaac please turn off the radio so God could hear their prayers. Isaac swabbed perspiration from above his haunted eyes with a rag he kept handy for cleaning the windshield.

Mitchell pounded his shoulder, yelling at him to downshift.

“I know, I know,” Isaac said, becoming annoyed. “Sit back, Wilson.”

The car speeded toward a full stop against a red rectangle of cut rock, the severe curve to the left dipping and dropping out of sight like a river spilling over a waterfall, the bottom third of the curve horseshoeing a lethal distance directly below them. Isaac squeezed the emergency brake and they smelled it melt away. He tried to steer, both of them awed by the velocity with which the Comet was entering the turn.

“Downshift,” Mitchell whispered, leaning across the seat to Isaac’s ear. “Downshift, downshift.”

Isaac chopped the transmission out of gear but couldn’t force it back in, jamming the shifter forward until third gear began to stink like industrial fire and reproduce the noise of a crosscut saw chewing into sheet metal. Mitchell heard teeth fly off inside the housing, hot bullets ricocheting deep inside the Comet’s gut. Finally the gear nudged into place and Isaac, loathe to do anything without his customary smoothness, had to let the clutch spring back before it was too late. Mitchell shot forward across the seat and into the dashboard, his nose squashed. Blood gushed down onto the white cotton shirt he had yesterday paid a matronly neighbor the going rate of fifty cents to wash and iron in preparation for his unsolicited reunion with Johnnie. The drive train reduced revolutions with a siren’s whine while the body of the car pitched onward, obeying the laws of nature. Isaac negotiated the curve with increasing expertise, downshifting again to twenty miles an hour, and flowed the Comet cleanly through a slalom of S-turns, but as the car regained momentum, it became necessary to climb back through the gears.

“Sorry, Mitchie bwoy. You okay, nuh?”

Mitchell slumped back behind the seat, licking warm blood from the fountain in his nose, wanting to wreck right now and get it over with, arrive at the airport in an ambulance (though he had never seen one on the island), collect Johnnie, plead her onto the gurney next to him, commence the nursing process without delay, submit to the truce of medical crisis under which old animosities could be justifiably ignored. The force of still another radical hook in the road packed him into a smaller and smaller space against the base of the car door. Again Isaac was grinding the transmission into third gear, a hellish racket that did not result in the anticipated roar of rpms. The clutch engaged, the engine idled in a terrible calm. What was once third gear Mitchell supposed had been lathed down to a sprocketless hub. Isaac bullied his way into second, a gear not made for the speed they had accumulated. The Comet bucked as though it were launching missiles, the cylinders howled with abuse, smoke filtered through under the dashboard, and the machinery, now a field experiment in the process of fission, blew up. The exhaust manifold gave an explosive belch and went silent. Mitchell looked up and saw Isaac with his jaw clenched. Angry tears appeared in his eyes, and he shouted.

“Miss Defy! Miss Defy! You weak obsocky bitch, how you mash up so!”

With half the mountain to go they were freewheeling and bitterly terrified. The radio continued to play, however; the music and its partisan melodies gave Isaac a poor reason to hope for the best. They rolled faster and faster, a steel trap of locomotion and churning rhythms, down the hill. The Crab Hole Bar flashed by: a smear of pastels, gray planking supporting a rusted zinc roof, a line of disinterested fellows on broken chairs in a dirt yard, laundry draped over pigeon pea bushes, a little boy in a tee shirt but no pants having a handless pee, the thick flora again, more pedestrians as the mountain was frequently residential at this lesser elevation. People hopped off the road into the homicidal gutters of the Crown agents, shooed by Isaac’s hornblowing. Miss Defy screeched around a blind bend into the path of an oncoming sedan; Isaac fought heroically to regain his legal portion of the thoroughfare. Crouching back onto the floor in an unheroic position himself, Mitchell discovered that the trash he had been tossing around on, one of the plastic shopping bags, had ripped open to dispense hundreds of individually wrapped, multicolored prophylactics. At the sight of them he felt extremely sorry for himself, thinking, God, they’re going to pluck these out of my mangled corpse after we smash. Sister Vera will come and nag over my body about family planning and wastefulness.

Every male in St. Catherine beyond the age of eleven had been accosted by Sister Vera from the Ministry of Health and People’s Welfare. Some foreign-aid deal, annotated by many strange complexities, had stuck her with an entire freighterload of rubbers which she personally distributed by the bucketful. In this way she was herself the recipient of a variety of insults and slander—cradle robber, barren puppet, “whore of the empire’s executioner,” one left-wing mimeograph called her—and the government didn’t concern itself with her mission as long as she got rid of the condoms before the time came to renegotiate this particular aid package into something more appealing, like video equipment or an armored personnel carrier.

It was no mystery then that Isaac had been induced to carry a year’s supply of rubbers in the backseat of the Comet. Sister Vera was assiduous, arguing that his fares could help themselves from the bag even though Isaac swore to her over and over that he would never wear such a smothering device himself, that he was spiritually opposed to the practice. He held a peculiar scientific belief relating to this matter. Isaac believed that the actual spirits—he called them angels—of his father, his grandfather, his great-grandfather, and so on, resided in the realm of his penis. It was understood by him that his ancestors were down there, every last one of them but too many to know by name, reduced to something approximating molecular waterbugs in the pool of his seed, yet whole and autonomous and accessible. Mitchell had even seen Isaac mumbling to his dick as if it were a microphone into the netherworld. To Isaac, this was science—an old old old one, true, but recently confirmed in his opinion by what he had read of the study of genetics. He loved newspapers from the States and considered tabloids the highest source of encouraging information. In fact, in a Florida sheet he had read that his special ability to talk with the deceased was a common and legitimate exercise, now studied inside machines and under microscopes at major universities.

Mitchell had met both Isaac and Sister Vera within minutes of his arrival on the island eight months previously. The nondenominational Sister, dressed like a meter maid, advanced on him as he waited for his gear to be lugged out of Customs by a mafia of porters. Perhaps the sight of his footlocker had provoked her—a white man moving in to bombard the local ovaries with blue-eyed imperial genes. She swooped down on him, lecturing with the fierce rhetoric of a victim, as though he were to be held accountable for every birth on the island in the past year, and urged him to accept her handout. Infrequent weeks of whirlwind missions—a deficit symposium in Rome, a consultation with the Export Office in Kathmandu—were the extent of his travel abroad; Mitchell did not yet know how to say no (and mean it) in a foreign country without excessive anxiety and a scarlet rash of guilt. Sister Vera’s only clear affiliation seemed to be the cult of contraception, but she had a deft talent for intimidation, her success at it rivaling the most orthodox harangues of the greater religions. She gave him the usual, shoved it into his arms, a shopping bag containing one gross of loose condoms, and when she left he opened the mouth of the sack and stared at them wistfully. They were little time bombs of copulation, in such quantity they could only be of use to the tireless libertines that undoubtedly roamed Sister Vera’s dreams.

Isaac too had been alerted by the footlocker and wandered over to offer Miss Defy for hire. Mitchell’s first impression was that he was too chummy, too upbeat, a potential nuisance, and he dismissed him regardless, because someone from the Ministry of Agriculture was supposed to meet the flight, to be there with Mitchell’s official welcome. Isaac grinned as if he knew better and strolled off in the direction of the airport bar, greeting everyone as his brother and sister. He was wearing the ugliest shirt Mitchell had ever seen, a synthetic made from petroleum, splashes of gray, yellow, and bright red, like smeared viscera. Parked on his trunk, Mitchell finished reading the Miami Herald; both the crowd and his optimism began to thin out. Where’s my official welcome and my official driver, Mitchell complained to that part of himself that he also considered official.

After refreshing himself at the bar, Isaac came back for him, prescient to the altered expectations of official white men. Mitchell looked at his slick pointed sideburns and his half-cocked grin, saying to himself this better work out, and stood up. Isaac took him to Rosehill Plantation, a hotel and guesthouse where Mitchell checked in until he found quarters of his own. Isaac took half his payment that day in the form of several rounds of Guiness stout at Rosehill’s beach bar, a strategic spot to examine the rise and fall of quality in female tourists. Women in bikinis would walk by and he would nudge Mitchell and say, Oh oh, look de bubbies! or Cheese on!, and tug at the knees of his khaki trousers. Down at the tideline an island boy and his younger brother played with a handful of their own certified prophylactics. The older boy filled one long green sheath with sand until it bulged obscenely and used it as a weapon to club the other boy in the head. Mutual entertainment developed into a one-sided beating. The casing finally burst, showering the little one with the powdered coral of the beach. The victim cried like a professional, a virtuoso crier. Their huge mother fired admonitions at them from where she floated in the lagoon, a battleship in a hot-pink leotard, and Mitchell thought, surveying the mountains and the sea, what a magnificent land I have come to.

In the months Mitchell had lived and worked on St. Catherine, he mailed two postcards, inscribing them with typical postcard language, to Johnnie in Hawaii. He had kept in random touch with her over the years since they had separated, the nature of the touch sometimes forlorn, sometimes smart-alecky, sometimes lonely, and the most prevalent tone was that of friendship, a seasoned song of tacit forgiveness and never, he hoped, anything but realistic. She had telegrammed back a shocking message just days ago: I want to see you. Will arrive in St. Catherine a.m., 3/30/77. Surprised? Your friend, Johanna.

He hissed those words under his breath, your friend, his fingers digging mindlessly into the clear plastic packets of prophylactics. His sinuses felt as though Styrofoam cubes had been brutally inserted into their cavities. When did she start calling herself Johanna anyway? My fucking friend, he cursed on the floor of the Comet. My friend, my private merchant of love and treachery, a southern belle with a slow white fire thrumming in her veins the last he saw her.

Isaac’s prelude of honking ended with a sharp bang into something distressingly solid. There was a nauseating sensation of uncontrolled coupling and then a swaying release. He lay on the horn again; there was another, more violent bang. Mitchell emerged from behind the seat only high enough to see what had happened and was disheartened. The Comet was boxed in by a steady flow of traffic chugging up Ooah Mountain and a frightened lady driver ahead of them going down too slow for the Comet’s independent rate of descent. They had rammed her, she had defensively and stupidly applied the brakes after they had disengaged, and Miss Defy struck her a second time, losing a few miles per hour from the impact and a moderate rise in the road, and the woman ahead, panicking, accelerated out of sight.

At twenty miles per hour they approached a curve requesting ten. Rummy sweat dribbled off Isaac’s forehead and obscured his vision. Entering the turn, Isaac cranked the wheel, his elbows flapping, and the Comet responded as if the asphalt had turned to ice. The traction gone, Miss Defy rotated gracefully around the bend of the parabola and whipped full circle back into the straightaway, steady again, just like you see in the movies, Mitchell gasping and shrunken but Isaac far in rapture over his accomplishment.

“I nevah see such as daht before, mahn,” he said, marveling at the stunt.

In the abbreviated distance ahead, the driver of the car they had crumped swerved half off the road, perpendicular into the entrance of a dirt drive. She exited her vehicle, a late-model Morris, shiny black, with imposing fury. She was a sizable woman and burly, her bosom swinging underneath a yellow blouse, and she charged into the road to flag them down and give Isaac a thrashing. The bumper on the rear of her Morris had an experimental shape to it, the taillights ceased to exist—small damage all told. Isaac was helpless to obey her directions. He took his hands off the wheel and raised them level with his ears as Miss Defy rolled past, not merely to advertise his innocence, but to express his exasperation at being the object of this person’s wrath. Since he had knocked into her without malice or intent, he seemed to be saying with his shrugging gesture, she herself might take a moment to consider that he was only a poor man about to be crushed by a destiny he could no longer persuade.

The gesture was sincere but ill-timed. Like a horse with a plan of its own, the Comet veered radically to the left, pulled by wheels last aligned in another era. There were no drainage ditches here, the shoulders too abrupt, the slope too precipitous, to collect water. Miss Defy catapulted off the surface of the earth, nothing in sight for a brief eternity but a blue horizon scratched with clouds. They completed their arc and nosed downward, hopping back onto rough ground, their jaws slamming shut, the tops of their heads denting the inside of the roof, making stars explode behind their eyes. Isaac hung courageously to the wheel as they plunged. Mercy, mercy, mercy, he croaked, his first surrender to fatalism. They rumbled through dry brush, the Comet an ocher dust storm lashed by branches and spiky shoots. There were noises to fear—something substantial ripped from the undercarriage and the thumping of a tire burst into shreds. Scrub hens bounced off the windshield and iguanas skated across the plane of the hood. Isaac resembled a captain at the helm in high seas. They regained the pavement by dozing through a low rock wall, circumventing two impossible curves above in the road by the grace of this route. Through a final turn, Miss Defy boomeranged sloppily and was expelled off the black tongue of the mountain onto the flat shorn vale of the airstrip, leaking an inauspicious trail of prophylactics from a gash in the floorboard. Isaac guided the car into a newly planted cane field and they rolled peacefully for fifty feet until it died in the dirt. The whole episode had seemed unreal in a gross, cheap way.

Mitchell asked Isaac if he was okay. He looked sleepyheaded, overcome with lassitude, as if he wanted to dream backward through the catastrophe and nullify it. He closed his eyes and held the side of his skull; lazy blood seeped through the spaces between his fingers.

“Wha?” Isaac said, rocking with pain. “Me ear bust in twos.”

Without much conviction, he affirmed his well-being and then complained further of a sprained ankle, a wrenched knee, and a sore chest from being hammered into the steering column. With sighing despondency he turned off the radio and dismantled it, even yanking the speakers from their door mounts, the silence as sad as taps played at a memorial service. A lot of noise remained in Mitchell’s own ears, a high-volume residue of calypso, brain-shaking, accompanied by the distant rasp of waves on the beach at the edge of the coastal plain. Mitchell wobbled out of the back of the Comet and stood with his hands thrust into his pockets, trying to think of what he could say to Isaac that would not sound like eulogy. Nothing but the bleakest remarks came to mind. Isaac, without Miss Defy, owned nothing. He sat like a deposed carnival king in his chariot, the strips of pompons from off the windows draped over his shoulders like a tawdry royal stole.

They walked away from the car as if they never had any business with it, as if the misfortune it represented, the perils and the fear, had been sustained by others. The Comet was something done with, finish up, that national litany Mitchell heard whenever he turned a corner, like the brake fluid in the weird island garages, finish up, like potatoes or milk or soap in the markets, finish up, like schoolbooks for the children, like the phone service that only went to one out of every four customers who wanted it, like the Carib Indians and the secret language of their women, like slavery, like the old regime of crooks and thugs Edison Banks had disposed of or co-opted so shrewdly, like the plantations and the plantocracy and the sugar industry and last night’s bottle of strong rum and like a thousand other pieces of junk pushed off the narrow roads of St. Catherine into the embrace of the bush, the Comet Miss Defy had joined the chorus of this collective destiny, had run itself into the ground and was now for all time finish up, bequeathed to scavengers, jerry-riggers, scrap revivalists, trash hobbyists, bugs, birds, lizards, rain, sun, moon, and myth.

“Coconut oil,” Isaac mused. He refused self-pity. “Why I believe daht shit, Wilson?”