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Darien Dogs by Henry Shukman

Trouble in paradise: good prose isn't enough, decides Henry Sutton, if your subject matter is seedy and unnattractive

Failed banker and disgruntled human being Jim Rogers is in Panama to clinch one last deal and save his skin. Except he can't help himself and he slips into the Geisha Sauna, across the parking lot from his hotel. Here he meets the beautiful Paulina, and falls madly in lust. After a dreary business dinner, where a dodgy Argentine business associate plies him with tons of cocaine, and, strangely, gives him a mysterious document for safe keeping, Jim returns to the Geisha Sauna.

In a Pretty Woman sort of moment, he asks Paulina to be his girlfriend and he takes her back to his hotel. Waking early the next morning, he decides to leave his sleeping beauty and have a proper sauna in the hotel's spa. Of course, by the time Jim gets back to his room Paulina has gone and so has his wallet, and the mysterious document. This document, it turns out, is the blueprint for a trans-national oil pipeline, which the business deal completely hinges on. Without it, no deal.

The dodgy Argentine business associate is furious, Jim less so. He doesn't really blame Paulina. What else was she going to do? Anyway Paulina is really called Nikiri, and she's an Amerindian Indian from the beautiful and remote Darien archipelago - where, coincidentally, the pipeline is destined to cut through. Jim and the dodgy Argentine set off for Darien, with very different agendas.

Henry Shukman is an acclaimed poet and gifted travel writer, and this is his first novel. His effortless, almost breezy style, is quietly captivating, and despite the story becoming both more familiar, and more ludicrous, I wanted to go on. Needless to say, Jim finds the wonderfully smooth skinned and pert-breasted Nikiri and goes native in an unspoilt tropical paradise, while the Argentine is ever more determined to get the ball rolling on his nasty, polluting pipeline. The story ends in total disaster.

It is, however, unsatisfying. Apart from the slightly tired message about capitalist values verses native tribal integrity, it's way too short to be a novel, so four short stories have been tacked on the end. Not a good idea - firstly because they quickly detract from any resonance that Darien Dogs might have left, and secondly they are so similar in tone it's hard to remember what happens in which story.

Also, like the novel, or I suppose novella, they are slightly smutty, in a seedy old man sort of way. In "Castaway", morose Harry Burton reluctantly takes a short holiday on the Bahamian island of Blunt. He's the only guest at the Pittstown Point Landings hotel. But fortunately it's run by the rather tasty Trudy, who, being American, probably "trimmed her pubes". When he wakes up next to Trudy the next morning, feeling depressed about the whole inevitability of having shagged her, his hand "grazes a pubic bush". We're not told whether this is trimmed or not.

In "Old Providence", Shukman serves up more tropical soft porn. Young, talented painter Billy Rothman moves to a tiny Carribean island with exotic Colombian-American Maria. What with the heat, the sunsets, and the lush undergrowth, Billy just can't resist Conchita and her nipples, like "thick buds of chocolate". Having soiled his paradise, he finds that the rest of his life is screwed. Shukman can certainly write prose. Sad, then, that his subject matter can very quickly become so unattractive.

Henry Shukman will be making two appearances at Dartington Literary Festival on Friday 16 July, to discuss both his poetry and how his varied career has influenced his fiction. For more information, call 01803 867 373, or see www.wayswithwords.co.uk

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