Darien Dogs, by Henry Shukman

Derelict dreamers adrift in the Caribbean
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Someone who has worked as a trombonist, a trawlerman and a travel writer should have a few good stories to tell. The curiosity of Darien Dogs, Henry Shukman's first work of fiction, is that the one story he has to tell rather dominates the fictions he writes. Half this book is taken up by the title piece, a novella about a banker getting into hot water while trying to close a deal to finance an oil pipeline across the isthmus of Panama. The other half comprises four short stories which flourish from the common root of men rueing their failures in love.

Someone who has worked as a trombonist, a trawlerman and a travel writer should have a few good stories to tell. The curiosity of Darien Dogs, Henry Shukman's first work of fiction, is that the one story he has to tell rather dominates the fictions he writes. Half this book is taken up by the title piece, a novella about a banker getting into hot water while trying to close a deal to finance an oil pipeline across the isthmus of Panama. The other half comprises four short stories which flourish from the common root of men rueing their failures in love.

Rogers, the banker adrift in "Darien Dogs", is having one heck of a week. The deal that could save his plummeting career is going (or always was) pear-shaped; he has fallen in love with a hooker who accidentally stole crucial documents from him; he has traced her to "the aboriginal Caribbean" of the Darien archipelago, a protected environment for the local Cuna Indians; and he is learning to subsist with only a hammock and a neolithic canoe.

Life is sweet. Shukman shrewdly does not attempt to rescue Rogers from going native, but twists the story into an open dénouement that sours the ambience of his Eden without crushing the bloom of his infatuation.

"Old Providence" is the best of the other tales. Rothman is an artist, successful because of vacuous modernist canvases. Yet his best work, nudes of Maria, was rejected as too conventional. He and Maria had been lovers on Providencia, the hidden gem of the Caribbean, until she discovered him seducing his neighbour's gorgeous wife. His clattering resentment of the art world, his own callow stupidity and the extent of his loss are told with plenty of vigour, even if there is little moral depth to anchor Rothman's fury.

"An island. That's what a man needs. A bloody perfect island": Rothman's sudden rant strikes the reader as somewhat of a manifesto for Shukman, who seems always on the verge of working Donne's sage warnings on insularity into his texts. All five tales find crumbling, lonely men failing in love, three specifically regretting lovers repelled by their crass infidelities. The convergence of these itinerant lives on a common preoccupation puts pressure on Shukman's abilities as a storyteller.

There are no trawlers or trombones here, but Shukman's travel writing has taken him around the Caribbean. There is a sense that he is content to drift again through the lagoons in pursuit of characters.

"Darien Dogs" has an easy fluency which reminds pleasantly of Anthony Bourdain's "beach noir" genre, although perhaps without the attendant menace. "Old Providence" is beautifully paced and pitched, and compares well to the crisp melancholia of William Trevor.

The remaining three narratives, unfortunately, have no real edge. In a first collection, that strikes one as a missed opportunity not so unlike those lamented by the author's derelict blokes.

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