In our supposedly enlightened era, memoirs by white people of their days in flea-infested colonial backwaterscomplete with oddball casts of funny-talking natives and absurdist local “governments”are supposed to be passé. Then again, so were cigars, martinis, and Tony Bennett, so it should not be especially surprising to find bookstores stocking Our Man in Belize, a memoir by retired diplomat Richard Timothy Conroy.
The first half of the book, which invites comparison to Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, is a dryly witty and (Conroy insists) mostly true account of his early-1960s stint as American vice consul in British Honduras, now known as Belize. Filled with death-wishing motorists, incompetent civil servants, and expatriate freaks, “BH” was a foreign service officer’s nightmare.
The second half of Conroy’s book is considerably grimmer, punctuated with tales of disastrous Hurricane Hattie, irrational State Department rules that all but railroaded Conroy’s career, and, most poignantly, the key-by-key disintegration of Conroy’s beloved grand piano, which had survived a crane-toss into his residence in Belize City but ultimately withered from Hattie’s humidity.
Though Conroy published three mysteries after his 1988 retirement from the Smithsonian, where he worked as international liaison after leaving the State Department, the Belize caper remained inside his head for more than three decades. “That was partly because there were too many people still living who might not have been pleased by it,” Conroy says. “Then time carried some of them off, and I was sitting at the Madison Hotel, trying to butter up my editor to take my next mystery. I drifted off into telling Belize stories, and she said, ‘For heaven’s sake, write it as a memoir.’”
So Conroy, 70, wrote the book without using anybody’s real name, except his own and that of his wife (Sarah Booth Conroy, the Washington Post’s society and historical columnist). In general, Conroy says, foreign service officers have told him they don’t think the book is too hard on the foreign service; indeed, his successor went so far as to say he thoroughly enjoyed it.
Conroy attributes his storytelling style to his Southern childhood (and not to his bureaucratic superiors, who hated his colorful prose). Conroy grew up in an isolated Great Smoky Mountains town but managed to escape the sulfurous copper smelters that hastened the deaths of his mother and grandmother and most of the local vegetation. “My memory of my father was that his hats had holes in them from the droplets of acid,” Conroy says.
Even so, Conroy’s environs barely improved during the succession of blue-collar jobs he held after a stint at the University of Tennessee. Most notable was a period working with liquid mercury at the Oak Ridge nuclear weapons facility; it was this job that convinced Conroy to join the foreign servicewhile his central nervous system was still intact. Fortuitously, the State Department happened to be looking for new foreign service officers.
These days, Conroy says, neither the foreign service nor Belize would be recognizable to him. As a result of downsizing and the telecommunications revolution, the U.S. now operates far fewer consulates in the boondocks. Meanwhile, Belize has not only shed its colonial past, it has developed a thriving beach-and-ecotourism economy.
But even with his book now done, Conroy says he has no great desire to return. “I’m not sure how I’d be received down there,” he says. “We sent the Belize ambassador a copy of the book, but we have not heard anything. I don’t know how well he would take it. The sensitivities now are greater.” Sometimes, Conroy adds, “Countries like to forget their pasts.”Louis Jacobson