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7574: Review of WHITE DARKENSS by David Salinger. Review by Bob Corbett
WHITE DARKNESS by Steven D. Salinger. NY: Crown Publishing, 2001
ISBN: 0-609-60728-6. 362 pages.
Reviewed by Bob Corbett
Review may also be found at:
On this e-mail list we have often spoken of foreign images of Haiti.
However, those images we discussed were spoken images we had heard, or
were on TV, radio and film, or were in mainly non-fiction writing of
journalists and scholars. In this latter connection I think of Robert
Lawless' book HAITI'S BAD PRESS.
However, and interest I have had for years, and one with I share with
Leon-Francois Hoffman, is of images of Haiti in foreign fiction. In
running a check of my own library program of novels concerning Haiti or
Haitians which I own, I note
I currently have 218 novels on the shelf and another dozen or so on order.
Little by little I read them and make notes on the images of Haitians
portrayed by these writers. My own collection is at least 90% of English
language authors, with a few translated novels thrown in. They are a
great mix with some simply excellent ones like Madison Smartt Bell's
novels, Alejo Carpentier's Kingdom of this world, Harold Courlander's The
Bourdeaux Narrative, the novels of Frances Temple, Mayra Montero's In the
Palm of Darkness among others.
There are also some so horrible it is hard to believe. Curiously, the
novel under review should not be confused with another novel of the same
title, White Darkness by David A. McIntee, is among the absolute worst.
In that novel "he TARDIS lands in Haiti in the early years of the First
World War. And the Doctor, Bernice and Ace land in a murderous plot
involving voodoo, violent death, Zombie and German spies. And perhaps
something else -- something far, far worse." I do want to separate that
novel off into a far different category that the present White Darkness
which is under review.
Normally these novels about Haiti and Haitians are uniformly bad, either
portraying Haitians in quite negative stereotypes, or simply getting them
completely wrong. When I decided to tackle the recently released White
Darkness by author Steven D. Salinger (not THAT Salinger, a different
one), I was curious as to what I would find, and just how much Haiti and
Haitians would figure in this novel set in Brooklyn.
I was pleasantly surprised on both counts. This is light fiction, a
rather gripping tale of greed, cruelty, violent sexuality and danger
lurking in every page. But the story is quite well told, and while the
very genre itself warns me much too early that everything will eventually
turn out okay, the tale along the way is worth the trip. For me it was
that lighter book I always carry to read while on the subway or those few
moments of reading I can snatch with I don't want to be into a book where
I pen and paper at my side for note taking.
The main story line is of a ring of criminals in contemporary Haiti who
are working with the CIA. Oddly they are mainly army officers and lowly
soldiers despite the non-existence of the army in Haiti today. Colonel
Hugo Ferray (ah, yes, say it a time or two and find the hidden lwa in the
name. Many of the key Haitian characters have names that are also names
of lwa) heads up a hit squad who kills people for the CIA. All of the
victims are extremely wealthy Haitians, but we are never given the
slightest clue why the CIA wants them dead. There is no hint they were
politically active. Ferray never physically involves himself in the
killings, but he sadistically visits the victims minutes before his army
squad invades their always extremely remote estates and destroys all the
people, committing rapes and brutality in the process. Then the house is
always plundered of all its valuables. Ferray is quite rich, having all
this plunder for himself plus safety deposit boxes of gold in the U.S.
seemingly from the CIA.
Meanwhile in Brooklyn Miz Ark (whose name is actually Arcenciel, from
which Salinger derives the name Sirene) runs a Haitian restaurant, a front
for an underground channeling service for illegal Haitians. Next door to
her is Moe Rosen, a second generation, but unsuccessful Jewish jeweler.
(Okay, we do have to have the token white guy hero in all this.) Moe's
father ran a very successful store here before the neighborhood became
poor and black, but Moe has hung in with his store, downgrading the
quality jewelry he sells.
The plot is intricate and fun, so I've only set the stage; all of which
you'd learn in the first few pages. Ferray's chief aid is Miz Ark's
brother; things go wrong on one hit in Haiti and Ferray heads for the
states. His greed and cruelty bring him into conflict with Miz Ark and
Moe. You have to be careful of 31 year old
Jewish jeweler superheroes, but lots of fascinating stuff fits in between
the necessary formulas.
Salinger's treatment of the Haitian characters is quite believable. With
the exception of an exaggerated notion of Voodoo which figures rather
heavily in the novel, and which I'll discuss below, he presents real
people who are distinctly Haitian. They are human; mixed personalities of
decent qualities (except for
the arch evil Colonel Ferray) and less decent qualities. They aren't just
poor black folks dressed up as Haitians, they really ring true of a
distinctness of Haiti and left me wondering where Salinger picked up his
insights into being Haitian.
I recall one scene when Miz Ark returns to Haiti and stops at a roadside
outdoor market in the provinces. Salinger's treatment of the deferential
and even girlish
manner of the market ladies in the presence of someone who obviously has
money to spend, was quite convincing, reminding me of many similar
situations I've been in at those same markets.
However, Salinger is writing for the American (and perhaps
Haitian-American) market, and is required to make Voodoo a central
organizing component of the novel. As I've already mentioned most of the
major character's names are
semi-homonyms for lwa. Ah, the lwa. One of the only really aggravating
aspects of the novel was his chosen spelling as: "l'wah". I found this
to be an extremely odd choice especially since he lists a very well known
Haitian houngan as one of the people to whom he gave special thanks for
help. I wished the Voodoo expert would have suggested a different
There is general tone of respect for the religion throughout Salinger's
novel. It does play a huge role in the lives of nearly all the people,
except for the cynical and evil, Ferray, which initself suggests a certain
respect: the basically decent Haitians are followers of the lwa. This is
not a Voodoo of wild feats and fantastic happenings with the exception of
a single scene in the climax of the novel which is built around a Voodoo
service. There some possessed by a spirits bites off the neck of a bottle
and chews the glass. Not what I've seen in dozens and dozens of simple
Rada services I've been to. In my own experience what has characterized
Voodoo has been its simple ordinariness, not its spectacular events.
Nonetheless Salinger seems to capture a respectful sense in which poor and
mainly unlettered Haiti peasants, both in Haiti and now in Brooklyn,
live their lives and find in the lwa and in ritual help in dealing with
the hardships of the world.
In my score book of images of Haiti and Haitians by foreigners Salinger
does fairly well. There is virtually no image of Haiti the country. The
curious fact of an operational army (or maybe he intended this as sort of
an underground pseudo-army -- it was very unclear) suggested a less than
in-depth knowledge, but he did drop a few hints that he knew of Aristide,
his image and troubles, but Haiti itself figures much less than Haitians.
The Haitians he treats with respect and,
I think, a good deal of general accuracy. Virtually all the characters
are of the peasantry, and the bit we learn of the aristocracy is rather
stereotypical, not so much as morally repugnant elite, but as folks who
have just turned their attentions inside and pay almost no attention to
the external world. Voodoo may be a bit too central to this image of
Haitian life, but, as we have recently been discussing on the e-mail list,
there is a great deal of controversy among ourselves on just how central
is Voodoo in Haitian life. I lean strongly to the view that it plays a
dramatically central role in much of the countryside, and that seems to be
the sort of view which Salinger has presented.
The novel is a suspenseful light read filled with Haitians, many of them
quite likeable and believable. You may well enjoy the book.