I ALMOST THREW away Tom Tatum’s exuberantly trashy Peace Corps novel Fiji 1970 after page 11. I’d just read this paragraph where Tatum’s protagonist Cooper drops in for a “checkup” by randy PC staffer Nurse Williams:
“She rubbed the cold stethoscope back and forth against my nipples until I was aroused . . . my hardening dick was up in the air. She climbed onto the table with knees against the side of my chest. Her white full nurse’s skirt made a tent. Her hand-free entry . . . ” leads, as a reader might expect, to energetic, kegel-induced mutual joy.
Okay. I was in the Peace Corps in the Seventies myself. Like Tatum, I was even in the libido-exaggerating South Pacific. And my own novel includes many scenes of Peace Corps hijinks. But puh-leeze, I found myself muttering, does it have to sound like Hustler?
Then I ran across a New York Times column in which writer Joe Queenan calls out people “who make a fetish out of quality.” Oh no, I groaned, I’m guilty.
“Such prissy attitudes are neurotic and self-defeating,” he chastises. “Bad books are an essential part of life.”
He adds, “As with bad movies, a book that is merely bad but not exquisitely bad is a waste of time, while a genuinely terrible book is a sheer delight.” So, I picked up Tatum’s book and gave it another go.
Before I declare Tatum’s novel a sheer delight, I should say that he’s working with an interesting story: a renegade, if idealistic, Volunteer trying to save the island potato crop from an attempted economic coup finds three of his friends murdered. In keeping with Tatum’s lurid tastes, the corpses’ pubic hair has been burned off.
In trying to solve the murders, Cooper beds many women (lots more aroused nipples and sulus sliding up to reveal dark triangles). The women are lustily aggressive, trained in Kundalini and Tantric yoga. One even seduces him with the “spinner,” that swinging basket maneuver of porn movie fame. There are Land Rover chases and a killer hurricane. He daringly rescues two injured kids, rides a giant wave, trains as a firewalker and, with the help of a witch doctor, a powerful potion and the mysterious Woman of Fire, who has many tiny gold rings pierced onto her yoni, he finally psychedelically visits the Land of the Dead Chiefs.
While in that hallucinatory state, he not only realizes who killed his friends but also who offed JFK. (Spoiler alert: it was Sam Rayburn, Allen Dulles and Earl Warren).
If this novel, self-published through XLibris, were better written, it surely could qualify as a classic, sulu-ripping page-turner. Parts of it are, Queenan-style, great fun. But Tatum badly needed an editor, to clean out annoying ticks that easily could have been resolved.
He continually front-loads adjectives before nouns (“my droopy, dusty, sweat-stained white cotton short sleeved shirt,” “the black, brittle, ancient plastic British phone,” “the thin-walled, village handmade fired red clay pot”) that made me want to scream.
And his similes are often long and laughable: Nurse Williams, he writes, “would strike terror simultaneously like Jeb Stuart’s cavalry did when they started their now-famous rebel yells at the Battle of Bull Run.” Or, “the tropical sky was blue accented with white, blustery clouds that passed through like bands of Plains Indians chasing a buffalo herd that had thundered through the day before trampling the high plans wheat grass.” Whew.
In short, Tatum has a rip-snorting story to tell, but apparently needed help in telling it. And I was left feeling philosophical about Peace Corps novels. Our burgeoning literary genre must be coming of age: we’re finally cranking out trashy novels about our experiences just like all the other kids.
Jan Worth-Nelson’s 2006 Peace Corps novel Night Blind is set in the Polynesian Kingdom of Tonga. One of her bosses, a former chancellor, once said her novel was “close to porn.” She teaches writing at the University of Michigan Flint.