October 2005

Jen Crispin

fiction

Voodoo Lounge by Christian Bauman

When I found out that Christian Bauman had a new book coming out, Voodoo Lounge,I was a little anxious about reviewing it. I had loved his first novel The Ice Beneath You so much, and had even exchanged a few emails with Bauman since then. Before the book even arrived on my doorstep, I felt like I had a lot invested in it and really wanted to like it. But what if it stank? What if Bauman fell victim to the classic sophomore slump, and really had only one good novel in him?

The prologue did nothing to ease my concern. Written in oddly stilted language, Bauman referred to the main character only as Jersey or "the soldier," with a complete absence of pronouns. Of course, when in the last paragraph it was revealed that the reason for the pronoun game was to conceal the fact that Jersey was a female soldier, and I had blindly assumed that the soldier was male, I was too embarrassed to be bitter about Bauman playing such games with the reader. After all, I consider myself reasonably savvy about gender issues -- and if I didn't catch on, how could I be annoyed?

Thankfully, however, after the prologue Bauman stops playing games and gets on to what he does best, which is tell stories. Voodoo Lounge is essentially two stories -- that of depraved ex-soldier Junior Davis, now engineer on a mission boat out to win converts to Jesus in Haiti, and of dedicated soldier Tory Harris (nicknamed Jersey), the only woman in a detachment that has just been deployed to Haiti. Like The Ice Beneath You, Voodoo Lounge is structured around a mystery in the past. In this case, the mystery is what caused the relationship between Harris and Davis, formerly two good soldiers in love, to implode so violently that Davis left the military, the two are no longer speaking, and Harris concealing a secret from everyone she knows.

But Voodoo Lounge is also the story of the United States invasion of Haiti in 1994. It is a mission where the rules are constantly changing and even the officers rarely seem clear on what the objective is or who the enemies are. Soldiers witness atrocities that they are ordered not to intervene in, carry out orders that seem to contradict those given immediately before, and in general struggle to make sense of what is going on around them.

Those who have read The Ice Beneath You will find the style of the writing familiar -- the same jumps between past and present, and between different locations. What is added is multiple narrators, including a female voice that rings so true that it makes me want to hunt down every person who ever raved to me about how well Wally Lamb "got" women in She's Come Undone and force them to read this book. Any woman who has ever worked in a field predominately occupied by men should find something to identify with in Bauman's Harris -- and be grateful that most of us don't have to live with our male coworkers.

What is so immensely valuable about Bauman's writing is that he manages to write about life in the modern military without romanticizing it, vilifying it, or turning it into some cheap Tom Clancy thriller. As a result, in a time when the gap between those inside the military and those outside seems to have never been greater, the average reader can gain a better understanding of what it means to be a soldier.

Voodoo Lounge by Christian Bauman
Touchstone
ISBN: 0743270983
336 Pages