Sunday, January 30, 2011

Galvinizing Review--Arin Greenwood's "Tropical Depression"

The odd thing about writing a book review—or a review of any work for that matter—is that the review, or re-view, is as much a re-flection of the reviewer as it is a reflection of the work itself. So as I read Arin Greenwood’s “Tropical Depression”, a not-so-fictitious (only a few of the names are changed to protect the guilty), somewhat hyperbolic, more-than-semi autobiographical tale of my home islands, I couldn’t help but read it through my lens—what the anthropologist Paul Rabinow called the “insider’s outsider”, a native who never feels quite at home in his native town, but isn’t exactly an outsider either, hence the label, insider’s outsider.

As an insider’s outsider, I found myself feeling many of the contradictory, paradoxical emotions that the novel’s speaker feels—defensive, apologetic, embarrassed, disturbed, forgiving, amused, uplifted, and sublime all at the same time—about how horribly and beautifully insane, or how insanely horrible and beautiful, our islands are. The speaker, Nina, puts it best upon returning to New York City after a year in “Miramar”, when Nina’s friends (don’t quite) want to know more about the island, to which Nina tells herself, “They do not want to hear confusing stories about parasailing accidents and the CIA’s deep involvement with Russian refugees. I can’t tell them about George and Brad, Robin and the judges and the secretaries and the CIA, Erika and Rory, unpaved roads, strip clubs, cockfights, karaoke with the mafia, parasailing ropes snapping, fecal lagoons, missing Max [her ex-lover] and bitter haoles and the cows at the court and how delicious mangoes are when you get them from the right store.”

Indeed, “mercenaries, missionaries, and misfits” (Arin’s labels for the three kinds of American expatriates who find themselves in Miramar) come to the islands with many misperceptions and dysperceptions about the islands, only to be disillusioned by the stark contrast and contentious conflict between their own self-righteousness and the islands’ own self-wrongness. Arin’s novel is thus not a postcard but, rather, a kaleidoscopic memoir of one such expat’s attempt to capture the psychological and cultural dissonance that can result.

That dissonance is fertile ground for humor, which Arin sprinkles throughout the novel with the clever but forgiving wit of a curious, observant, and only sometimes judgmental travel writer. (That should come as no surprise given Arin’s experience in travel writing.) Finding cows grazing in front of the islands’ Supreme Court house and chickens milling about on the airport runway; unwittingly drinking undrinkable tap water; trying to be a vegetarian on an island obsessed with meat, especially SPAM; frequenting poker clubs-slash-strip clubs-slash-karaoke joints; and reluctantly swimming in a beautiful lagoon contaminated by fecal matter are just some of the bizarrities (Yes, I made that word up. Isn’t it a cool and useful word?) that had me laughing throughout my read.

But the real bizzarities are the characters of the novel, who come to Technicolor life because they are based on real people living surreal lives. (Marquez’s magic realism pales in contrast to the novel’s surrealism.) The novel vividly presents a motley crew of missionaries, mercenaries, and misfits who are immensely diverse and distinct, yet share the common experience of being strange people in a strange land. (And boy do they drink and party and drink, which is a very verifiable reflection of the veritas of expats on the islands.) The novel also delves somewhat into the stories behind the foreign workers of Miramar, but linguistic and cultural barriers prevent the novel from providing any deep character studies of these equally diverse and distinct strangers in a strange land.

If the novel’s characterization of foreigners is shallow, the novel’s portrayal of the indigenous people was deeply depressing, only because it was so spot-on. While there are many redeeming characteristics in the local characters, the novel astutely observes that local politicians are crass and corrupt, local kids are raised by foreign nannies, and local cultures are fading away. (In that sense, Miramar is not so different from New York City.)

While locals might take offense to an outsider pointing these things out, Arin’s non-judgmental travel-writing tone spares the novel from the usual self-righteous indignation that characterizes much of what haoles say and write about the islands. In fact, I found her treatment of local characters, much like her treatment of expat characters, to be incredibly humane. Although the novel is sometimes a bit too neurotically myopic, it does take us past caricatures of its characters and into the depths of who these people really are, with all their warts and ticks and struggles and joys. Just as the expats struggle to find themselves in this Island of the Lost, the locals struggle to find themselves in their lost island.

(There is one exception to this depth and that is the one character I could not stand, Brad. He is too cool and hip and unbelievably Indiana Jones/James Bond-ish to be real or have any real depth. Brad is, in my book, a classic douche bag.)

At its heart, and what I found most endearing, “Tropical Depression” is a simple and timeless tale of unrequited love. Having lost her love in New York City, Nina loses herself in the tropics, looking for (what she thinks is) love in others, even if what she’s really looking for is still in New York, 6,000 miles away from Miramar. And, like many tales of unrequited love, in the end, she struggles not to find love, but to let go of the love that has been lost, and in the process, find not love, but herself.

Reading Arin’s story of a haole in the tropics reminded me of my days as an islander in the Pacific Northwest. I used to get depressed yet happy in Tacoma—wet, cold, yet content to wrap myself up cozily in the dense greenery, misty weather, and fog-filled mornings. Likewise (or in complete contrast), Arin’s heroine finds herself depressed yet happy in Miramar—humid, hot, yet content to wrap herself up cozily in the dense jungle, stormy/sunny weather, and hung-over mornings. She finds herself tropically depressed in the tropics. But, after losing herself in its metaphorical and literal jungles, she finds her way out of the tropics, out of her depression, and into herself.

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