If you’re on Spring Break this week or looking forward to it next and wished you had made plans to skip town for a tropical island, then I recommend picking up a copy of Arin Greenwood’s first novel Tropical Depression (2010). Catch a vicarious flight (or 5) to a remote would-be paradise, “part of a chain of islands right smack in the middle of the Pacific, in that big stretch of blue—south of Japan and north of Australia, east of the Philippines and west of Hawaii—that looks empty on the map.”
Aren’t you already eager to escape your wintery doldrums and mountains of midterm grading? Ready for warm turquoise waters, gentle surf, soft beaches, languid afternoons, lush jungles, bright flowers, exotic birds, mangoes that fall ripe from the trees?
Perhaps, like the novel’s protagonist Nina, you are expecting to “escape to paradise. Get a tan, forget your troubles, forget yourself. Wear a thong?”
Paradise is never what we expect it to be.
As the novel opens, Nina, a young attorney from New York City, finds herself—all in the same day—fired from a job she hates at a firm that defends Big Tobacco and dumped by a boyfriend she still very much loves. When the opportunity arises to take a job as a law clerk on an island that is part of the U.S. territories in the Pacific, Nina jumps at the opportunity to put relationship angst and professional malaise behind her, embracing a fantasy in which the island is “empty, devoid of people, devoid of judgment.” She imagines, “sitting on a quiet beach where no one will see me, except whoever is in charge of bringing me fruity drinks. I see myself having a torrid affair with a beautiful local boy who climbs coconut trees to fetch me coconuts, who doesn’t speak English and so can’t ask me why I have absconded to this deserted island and how I plan to spend the rest of my life.”
A fantasy, indeed. While the island, “Miramar,” does have some beautiful beaches, it also has a “fecal lagoon” (there’s no proper sewage treatment), countless stripper/poker/karaoke dive bars (the detritus of a decaying tourist industry), corrupt judges and politicians, Americans expats, and all manner of drunks and gossips. There’s even an attractive, bad-boy CIA operative (probable—we never find out for sure if he’s a spy) who reminds Nina of her ex-boyfriend.
While Nina is somewhat horrified when she first arrives (not least by the lack of decent vegetarian food and the wretched polyester suits her boss makes her wear), she eventually begins to fit in among the locals better than she ever expected she would—a “misfit” among “mercenaries, missionaries, and misfits.” She snorkels, SCUBA dives, goes parasailing, has affairs with two men, and generally entangles her life in the life and lives of the island.
But even amidst these entanglements, the past is never far away. The island has rumors of ghosts of its own, and Nina can't ever seem to forget the joy and sorrow of her old relationship and the life she left behind when it ended. Why should it so hard for a girl just to get away? To escape herself and start fresh? To let go of the past?
Perhaps it is most difficult to get away from the past when one has never truly lived—or forgotten how to live—in the present. By the end of her adventure, Nina wonders, “if I ever really appreciated anything while I actually had it.”
Who ever really does? It’s one of the hardest things to do: to accept the simple pleasures of life and the people who share them with us, to accept and relish the present, whether in New York or on a tropical island—to appreciate and then, when the time is right, to let go. As Nina is preparing to leave, she finds, “it is mango season again.” With her sometime lover, “sweet George,” she tastes the gloriously sweet flesh of the fruit, “try[ing] to record the taste of this fruit on my tongue, in my brain.” They “eat the mangoes together and don’t talk much.” Indeed, the present is sweet, and it’s so easy to forget that sweetness of the here-and-now while you are—as we all often are—caught up in the what-has-been or what-will-be.
And so we seek escape in order that we may return to taste the present.
Wherever you are this week of break and almost spring, release your thoughts of past and future. Let go of your expectations. Put your students, your job market woes, your research and writing plans aside. Enjoy your well-deserved mid-semester escape, whether you are at home or on an adventure of your own. Eat a mango—or whatever fruit falls nearby.
And read Arin’s book.