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Bob Shacochis doubts that his book The Immaculate Invasion will ever be made into a movie. Jonathan Demme has bought the rights to it, and a separate writer has already finished the script, but Shacochis knows that his story, a firsthand account of the United States military’s “occupation” of Haiti, is much too toxic for Hollywood. Shacochis points out that the people of Haiti “are not just black people. They’re not even American black people. They don’t speak English.”
Race isn’t the only thing that could keep the book from celluloid. It’s a war story filled with meanies but no official bad guysand thus no real battles; no victory; no beginning, middle, or end. “Operation Uphold Democracy” was the Pentagon’s name for its vague mission to bring order to Haiti, a country where bloodshed and elections traditionally go hand in hand; the soldiers involved were engaged in what the military calls “Operations Other Than War.” From the fall of 1994, when the U.S. made its “soft” entry into Haiti, to the winter of 1995, when the soldiers were brought home, the American military suffered only one casualty.
Shacochis, a National Book Award winner, a contributing editor at Harper’s and Outside magazines, and the former managing editor of the McLean High School newspaper, was in Haiti for much of the occupation, bunking with commandos who were ordered to regard the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), the notoriously brutal, CIA-backed paramilitary group, as “the loyal opposition.” The plan for the soldiers was to somehow stop the violence in Haiti without using any themselvesno one wants to see dead Americans on CNN. So, dressed (but not, it seemed, always licensed) to kill, the troops stood by as thugs wreaked havoc on one of the hemisphere’s poorest populations. Nobody could tell when or if the American soldiers would actnot even the soldiers themselves. In his book, Shacochis calls the whole affair “[w]arfare’s version of date rape….No one would really surrender, no one would really attack: a recipe for endless uncertainty, reversal, promiscuity, and evasion.”
Not that The Immaculate Invasion is devoid of action or violence. There was the time a riot started when the writer was with a group of journalists interviewing soldiers inside a Haitian army casern in the town of Limbé. The soldiers opened fire. “Unbeknownst to us, the Green Berets had deployed into town and were ready to blow up the casern,” Shacochis recounts, his face more surprised than scared by the memory. “Within a millisecond, they were ready to do that.” Luckily, Time magazine war correspondent Ed Barnes “had the presence of mind to jump out into the middle of this huge bloody mess and say, ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! There are Americans in here!’ I really felt that it would be pretty hard for things to get worse than that.”
They did. Not long after the Limbé incident, Shacochis was in Port-au-Prince attending a march that was to end at a cemetery, where the demonstrators would release doves in remembrance of thousands murdered throughout Haiti’s military rule. But the path to the cemetery went by a FRAPH hangout. A FRAPH thug grabbed the cage of doves and wrung the birds’ necks. The marchers threw rocks. “Many landed on tin roofs, banging too much like gunshots,” the book recounts. “Then a more distinct crack echoed, a real gun being fired.” Bedlam ensured. People were getting shot; others were beaten dead. The writer ran for cover. “Then, like a gust of wind, the mob was pummeling another man, blood streaming down his bewildered face, then pummeling an NBC cameraman trying to protect him as a CNN cameraman pressed so close to the action that blood splashed across the lens of the camera, across television screens around the planet.”
In the book, the disjointed rhythm of the riot plays out like a bleak comedy. One second the writer sees a terrorist armed with nothing but a barbecue fork; the next someone’s pointing a gun at him. Around one corner he finds a child selling Cokes out of a bucket; around the next a kid is screaming that an American journalist has just gotten shot in the head. American soldiers watch the riot but do nothing to stop it. Shacochis mentions, somewhat nonchalantly, that he’s “bopped around enough to know that war zones are weird”violence and normality can somehow coexist, sometimes on the same block. As far as Haiti goes, he says, “I’ll admit, and not necessarily with pride, that it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. I can understand intimately why soldiers have a hard time going back to civilian life. It’s really washed-out after all that stuff.”
Shacochis is a man of appetites, though he’s fairly thin, with an adventurer’s facial hair but the reedy voice of a computer programmer. He says he’s got a reputation for being a macho guy and a gonzo journalist, “and I’m neither of those things. I do get a lot of calls from editors saying”his face strains as his voice goes low”‘Well, you’re the type of guy that can handle this situation.’ And I never think that I am. But I have a hard time saying no.”
A few days before our interview, Shacochis celebrated 23 years of, as he calls it, “shacking up” with his common-law wife, a woman the writer immortalized as “the dear, snacking Miss F” in the Dining In column he wrote for GQ in the early ’90s. The essays were unflinchingly intimate musings on food and life that helped cement Shacochis’ reputation as a daredevil constructor of complicated sentences and an emotionally intelligent hedonist. The entire buffet is collected in the book Domesticity: A Gastronomic Interpretation of Love. The relationship provides Shacochis with some of his best material, a notable recent example being “Missing Children,” a heart-rending account of the couple’s failed attempts to conceive that Harper’s published in 1996. (As a humorous aside, he mentions that he would often fly out of the Haitian war zone when Miss F was ovulating.)
Still, Shacochis, who technically lives in Florida, isn’t home much, and that’s the way he likes it. The great majority of his work, both fiction and nonfiction, is set someplace other than the States. He acquired a healthy disdain for his native country growing up in McLean. Posing for photographs, the 40-something writer explains that his father, John, was a Fairfax County supervisor responsible for, among other things, building the transit systems that gave suburbanites easy access to the District. As a kid, he found the suburbs empty: “We didn’t know our neighbors. This community is so mobile. People are always moving in, moving out….You couldn’t say, ‘I’m going to go out to the corner store, and I’m going to see other kids there that I know.’ There was nothing like that. You walked outside, and you just kept walking and walking through neighborhoods that all looked the same. You never saw black people.”
In 1973, after graduating with a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, Shacochis caught a cheap flight to Central America and ended up working and living with spear fishermen on a Colombian-owned island off the coast of Nicaragua. There, his worldview took shape. “I loved that [the fishermen] had a value system that was really different than the value system I had grown up with in the suburbs,” he explains. “These are black, Third World, impoverished people with nothing and no prospects for the future, but they weren’t sitting around saying, ‘Our life sucks.’ When things were bad they suffered, no doubt about it. But basically they loved life. From my suburban point of view there was a paradox there: You’re not supposed to be loving lifeyou’re black, Third World, poor people. You’re supposed to be eating your bowl of shit every day. But no. That’s not how it works. That was really a consciousness-altering experience for me.”
Shacochis ended up joining the Peace Corps as a means to get back to the Caribbean, serving in impoverished Latin American locales in the mid- to late ’70s. He witnessed a lot of violence in the Corpshe got stabbed; one friend got murdered; several others were rapedand he eventually fled back to the States to chase Miss F, whom he’d recently met, and, he hoped, a writing career.
At first, the romance went better than the career. Shacochis wanted to get into magazines, but he didn’t want to pay dues in a newsroom to get there. He wanted to be a writer like Graham Greene or Robert Stone; but he knew he wasn’t going to get flown to the tropics as a beat reporter. So he got himself into the University of Iowa’s creative writing program and started banging out fiction.
And his fiction, almost all of which is set in the Caribbean, has been good to him. In 1985, he put out his first book, Easy in the Islands, a collection of short stories. The collection won him the National Book Award; his first and as yet only novel, Swimming in the Volcano, was nominated for the same prize in 1993. Today, he gets academic gigs (he’s currently teaching at Bennington and Florida State), and magazine editors use him to bring stories out of sketchy spotsCuba, Katmandu, Kamchatka, Haiti.
In his role as a far-flung correspondent, Shacochis comes off as a kind of swashbuckling humanist. He calls himself a “chickenshit.” His attraction to danger is both personal and professional; displaced people and thrill seekers are fun to hang out with, and they also provide great content. “I like to be in the position to craft interesting sentences,” he explains, dragging on a cigarette, “to use the devices that fiction uses so well to create human beings on the page: character development, narrative development, love of language. Love of image and metaphor can make nonfiction that much more rich and rewarding and valuable.”
The places he writes about are vanishing, irreversibly eroded by cultural imperialism. There are Americans wherever he goessoldiers, wackos, businessmenas well as variations on the fishermen he befriended way back when in the Caribbean, locals who have learned to live according to the strictures of savagery and decay.
In The Immaculate Invasion, Shacochis writes of Port-au-Prince: “a place where homeless children would one day fight each other for the feral right to lick the gummy residue out of the brown plastic pouches of MREs” discarded by American soldiers; about how “along the quayside it was not unusual to see, throughout the infinite years of the tyrantswhite, black, and mulatto; colonial or modernbodies bobbing in the otherwise tranquil harbor.” The next paragraph begins: “Yet everywhere here the roadside was thick with human vitality…”
“The people have a spirit that I find missing in American life,” Shacochis replies when I ask him what appealed to him about the Haitian assignment. Bad circumstances, he says, force people to ask the fundamental question “What’s valuable in the world?” He doesn’t need to think about the answer: “The first thing that’s valuable is family and love. The second thing that’s valuable is the extended family and the community. These things don’t pop up to the surface of American life without a disaster.”CP