October 2013

Edward Stephens

fiction

Tropic Death by Eric Walrond

Of the ten stories in Eric Walrond's recently reissued 1926 collection Tropic Death, nine end in death and all ten take place around the Caribbean Sea. The title, then, is a sort of formula for the whole work that can be broken down into its components "death" and "the tropics."

The "death" half of the equation sags, I'm sorry to say. If Walrond's goal was tragedy he misses the mark far more often than he hits. I came away with the impression that he uses his characters' deaths as a shorthand for tragedy, or as a kind of stage direction indicating that the reader ought to be reading with some significant sadness in his heart. Death on its own, however, does not equal tragedy -- not death by shark attack, not death by snakebite, not death in a shop fire, not death after a nasty bordello argument, not death from eating rocks when food is scarce. All of these deaths are simply deaths; I am only as harrowed by them as I am by the estimated one hundred thousand or more that occur every day in this world.

It is convenient to my criticism that one of Walrond's stories perfectly exemplifies the sort of genuine tragedy toward which his others merely gesture. This exception, "The Yellow One," takes place entirely aboard an overcrowded steamer traveling from Honduras to Jamaica. The titular "yellow one" is the pretty, young Honduran mestizo mother whose husband is bringing her back to his native Jamaica as the trophy of his foreign exploits. She has never before been on a ship, and she finds everything about the experience inadequate: their quarters below-decks are cramped and loud; the crew does not provide her with food or water; and no one, especially not her husband, so much as lifts a finger to help her with her heavy bags despite the added burden of a nursing infant. It is easy to sympathize with her as she shakes off her disappointment and sallies forth in quest of help, enduring all the while a storm of catcalls and a fog of indifference. Help arrives in the person of a sympathetic crewman; the first wisps of romance, too, are kindled between them. Death cuts her down -- her new friend gets into a fight with one of the cooks, and she is trampled in the ensuing racial fracas -- just as she has turned her hardship to hope. Such a final insult to erstwhile triumphs of ingenuity, generosity, love, and steadfastness is the true domain of death in tragedy, a domain that Walrond does not elsewhere approach.

The treat in these stories comes from the other portion of their theme: the tropics. The collection excels as a catalog of everything one might find in the early twentieth-century Caribbean. Geography and geology, flora and fauna, religions imported from Africa and Europe, proper and pidgin languages, all the races of a racialized society, all the subtle hues of sky and water to be found nowhere else on earth -- Walrond, writing perhaps from a perch of keen nostalgia in a New York so utterly different from his childhood in the tropics, takes pains to include all the particularities of Barbados, Panama, and British Guiana. His evocations of color stand out especially. The palette he uses in the following passage, from "The Palm Porch," is typically thorough:

Down by the mouth of a creole stream the dredges worked. Black in the golden mist, black on the lagoon.

With the aftermath there came a dazzling array of corals and jewels -- jewels of the griping sea. Magically the sun hardened and whitened it. Sand-white. Brown. Golden. Dross surged up; guava stumps, pine stumps, earth-burned sprats, river stakes. But the crab shell -- sea crabs, pink and crimson -- the sharks' teeth, blue, and black, and purple  ones -- the pearls, and glimmering stones -- shone brightly.

Upon the lake of jeweled earth dusk swept a mantle of hazy blue.

He layers colors upon his scenes with such prodigality as if to overlook even one shade would be an unforgivable betrayal of his past. Walrond's fastidiousness in this regard contributes not a little to the book's charm.

Such an assembly of tropical things merely amounts to the vocabulary of tropical experience; it is in laying out the syntax of that experience -- the nature of society at the remotest reaches of empire -- that Walrond writes most powerfully. The stories in Tropic Death testify more than anything to the strange problems of life in such outposts. For the blacks, Indians, and mestizos, that experience consists of the imposition of outside interests to guide their daily activities. Isn't it odd, Walrond as much as asks, that thousands of people who have no material interest at stake beyond a day's wages should ruin their bodies in the construction of a massive canal? Or, as in the opening story "Drought," that they should spend so much time breaking large stones into gravel for road construction that they cannot raise crops or livestock to feed themselves on an island of abundance?

The American and European whites in these stories resemble no literary character so much as the nameless magistrate from J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians: representatives whose responsibility to the seat of empire seems each day less grounded in the reality of the alien land spread before them. The murderous marine Canal Zone overseer in "Subjection" is truly monstrous, but at the same time I sympathize with his pathetic position, thousands of miles from home in a mosquito-infested, sweltering locale, of ensuring the completion of inhumanely menial work by foreigners. And the otherwise bland gothic tale "The Vampire Bat" is improved greatly by the interplay of the war hero protagonist's expectation of a glorious return to his Barbados estate and the thinly veiled rancor with which he is received by his former servants and acquaintances. The rewards in these curious imperial landscapes are not so much greater for the oppressor class than the oppressed.

"Sea on top of sea, the empire mourned the loss of a sovereign; and to the ends of the earth, there sped the glory of the coronation," Walrond writes in the story "Tropic Death." That sentence, wedged between descriptions of poor blacks totally indifferent to royal demise and succession, purple with irony, is a red-letter moment in the collection -- the sort of moment in a writer's first book that presages greater works to come. Eric Walrond, however, never wrote a book after Tropic Death despite being awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1928 to aid him in writing a series of novels. The question of why an author whose imperfect first story collection showed such promise never followed it up ought to be the central issue of his biography. Shame, then, on biographer Arnold Rampersad, whose mostly vapid introduction to this new edition does not so much as approach the question. As it stands, the stories in Tropic Death are well-observed, but the collection is a mixed bag at best -- and we are left to wonder what more could have come from a little more seasoning.

Tropic Death by Eric Walrond
Liveright
ISBN: 978-0871403353
192 Pages