Mischa Berlinski's Haiti is a terrible place. His Haiti is a beautiful place. In his new novel, Peacekeeping, Haiti is either the best or the worst place, all depending on the day, the moment, the observer.
But what Haiti is most of all is compelling. Addicting. For his characters it's the kind of place that inspires an almost mystical obsession. Like the expatriate judge returning to the place of his birth. The journalist. The former Florida cop turned U.N. worker named Terry White who has decided that Haiti, for all its flaws, is the place where he can make his mark. Where he can finally do some good after failing in so many other attempts. Maybe...
"Terry likes to tell himself a lot of stories," says Kay, Terry's wife, late in the novel. "I guess all men do. Women are different — we have to be, we have to live with you people. A man will tell himself he's building a road. Or saving an orphan from a burning building...And if the story is good enough, a man will tell himself it's okay to go to bed at night. But truth is, men don't have a clue. Terry doesn't even know why he gets out of bed in the morning. But I sure know why I do."
But to begin: Mischa Berlinski (the guy who wrote Fieldwork, which was probably the best missionaries-and-prison-suicide book of 2007) is telling the story of Terry White in Haiti, as seen through the eyes of an unnamed narrator — a journalist-turned-aspiring-novelist who befriends Terry and Kay during a very odd time in Haiti and all of their lives. There's Terry, Kay, who was a real estate agent (and Vicodin addict) crushed by the U.S. financial collapse. There's judge Johel Celestin, an American-educated Haitian who fled the Duvaliers as a boy, then returned, and Johel's wife, Nadia, who is like a phantom — tiny, quiet, beautiful, powerful — and becomes an object of obsession for Terry because Terry is a good man who can't seem to help but do bad.
Honestly, though, that's too simple a description for a Mischa Berlinski character because Berlinski operates in a world where the gray middles of everything (choices, declarations, morality) far outspace the black and white at the margins. Terry is a good man (who, while a Florida deputy sheriff, used to buy Christmas presents for the children of the men he'd locked up), but a terrible husband (who cheats on and half-abandons Kay). He is a man who wants to help the Haitian people (by trying to get Johel Celestin elected as a senator in place of the corrupt incumbent), but is doing it because he has been defeated in his own battles — having lost his career and his home in a vain attempt at playing in the Big Leagues of Florida politics. He is a broken man. Lost, even if he doesn't quite know it, and trying desperately to rediscover himself in Haiti.
And all of this — the politics, the connections, the battle — is really nothing but an attempt to get a road built between the small town of Jeremie (where much of the novel's action takes place) and Port-au-Prince (where the rest of it does). Terry wants the road built. Johel runs for senator on a pledge of getting the road built. The road is important.
"A mango tree is for a small peasant like a little money machine: a mango tree and a road are school fees for your child; a mango tree and a road, and your wife has prenatal care... A mango tree without a road is a pile of fruit...And what happens to the mangoes now? They fall to the ground and rot — the pigs eat the mangoes and the kids go hungry. And why is that? Because there is no road."
But even that story would, I think, be too simple for Berlinski. The financial crisis, corruption, the downward spiral of morality, a road and mango trees — not enough. Because there's also riots, race, religion, the relationship between Kay and the unnamed writer (who, as in Fieldwork where it was more overt, is a stand-in for Berlinski himself who once followed his own U.N.-employed wife to Haiti), the 2010 earthquake, and the constant juxtaposition of the beauty and ugliness of Haiti, which is hurtling toward disaster despite all the best efforts of those trying to save the country from itself.
Men can content themselves with stories, Kay says, but the women can not. And, ultimately, she is right. It's the earthquake that settles all the action of Peacekeeping — an event beyond the calculations, machinations or good intentions of any man. And in the end?
Well, I won't ruin that for you. But I can say that it all ends with stories — earthquake stories, of course, told by men — and the plans of the women who survived them.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphiamagazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.