by D. J. [Don and Joyce] Arneson (Jamaica 1989)
Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 199798)
SOON COME ISNT a novel it reads more like a barely-disguised memoir, which isnt necessarily a good thing. This is a Peace Corps book, first of all. Soon Come tells the story of Beth Ohlsson, a middle-aged returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Jamaica until roughly two years before the book starts. The novel begins with her opening a box of memorabilia, which she buried upon her return to Minnesota. Now she is recovering them to face her Jamaican duppies, or ghosts, by writing a book about the Peace Corp to relive and purge some of the more traumatic elements of the experience.
One cant help thinking that the authors would have done better fashioning an autobiographical memoir of their story in Jamaica; both are middle-aged RPCVs who served in Jamaica. By writing a novel, they set up expectations for tension that do not always deliver.
In preparation for writing, Beth escapes home for a summer and settles into her cabin at Bent Needle Lake in the forests of Minnesota, a location that dredges memories of a former marriage to Mike, who served alongside her in the Peace Corps. Soon Come dangles an initially compelling carrot: we learn that Beths service in Jamaica has been cut short by a year and that she and Mike have since divorced for as yet unknown reasons. But then the novel splits and here is where the breakdown occurs. One section includes firsthand accounts of the book Beth is writing, and this is interesting stuff. The Peace Corps section explores Beths issues dealing with her husbands problems adjusting to life in Jamaica, her suspicion that he is having an affair with another Volunteer, her problems with a power-hungry supervisor and her burgeoning romance with the charismatic Jamaican Reverend Sydney Reid, who oversees her work at a school outside Kingston helping six young girls make and sell their dolls at a local marketplace.
The other section, by contrast, reads slowly, making me impatient to return to Jamaica. When Beth is not writing at Bent Needle Lake, she takes lots of long, meditative walks in the woods. She begins a romance with the gentleman in the next cabin, Nick Faber who is not only there for the summer as well, not only roughly her age, but also, improbably, writing a Peace Corps book, albeit an academic and statistical account of Volunteers experiences. Ultimately, her relationship with Nick will provide the happiness that helps put the duppies of her former men to rest.
This is, perhaps, why the Arnesons chose to write a novel rather than a memoir: to show not only a Peace Corps Volunteers overseas experience, but the process by which they put their compelling experiences to rest by finding new distractions in life. But not much really happens while Beth and her boyfriend are together, except for a brief storm that trashes Nicks cabin. In the case of Soon Come, this is simply not as interesting as the suspense gripping readers in Jamaica.
Beths romances are also uninspiring. Virtually every display of affection by Nick is followed by a stuttering apology: He cant seem to get into bed with Beth without asking: Is it all right? Do you mind? When Mike pays a brief visit to tell Beth hes considering a job in Costa Rica, he hints rather than asks her to join him, though its obvious thats why hes come. Men in the Arnesons book have a problem with directness, which creates listless relationships and dilutes romantic tension. After Beth completes her manuscript and is about to return to Jamaica (possibly without coming back), Nick accompanies her to the airport without asking her to stay. When Beth begins talking about their summer together, Nick acts like he wants to hide under a rock. The world of fiction is often driven by the competing desires of individuals, and the competing desires between people who care for each other, laid out on the page, creates an exciting, page-turning experience. Unfortunately, Arneson avoids taking this route.
Many RPCVs whove penned stories of their experiences may perhaps indulge the Arnesons characters, and Beths reflective escape to the woods of Minnesota rings true. But in Soon Come, it doesnt make for interesting fiction and non-RPCV readers are not likely to identify enough with Beth to stick with the story. The Jamaica section is riveting, and its too bad the Arnesons dont focus here. Fraught with Minnesota ennui, Soon Come is, ultimately, an unbalanced book.
Joe Kovacs served as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language in Sri Lanka from 1997 to 1998. He writes for WorldView Magazine, the quarterly membership publication of the National Peace Corps Association, and is currently working on his second novel.