The late 60s/early 70s was a time of international and civil strife. The Vietnam War one of the major touch points, things in the US only quieted down in the late 70s with the election of Jimmy Carter. But with the induction of Ronald Reagan into office a few years later, a new round of unpopular military action was begun. Learning their lesson, the government operated mostly out of the public eye, inserting small strike forces in Latin America to assist guerrilla armies here and broken governments there, all with an eye to economic rather than human interests. Aware of what was happening in the region, Lucius Shepard penned R&R in 1983. Bringing awareness to a situation that to this day does not receive the same recognition as Vietnam or Iraq, the near-future story of a US soldier fighting in Guatemala offers anti-war sentiment in mature fashion, and in turn adds itself to the ranks of anti-war stories told in highly human terms.
R&R is the story of David Mingolla, an army soldier fighting in the jungles of Guatemala against whatever enemies spring before him. Cubans, local rebels, and even renegade U.S. Army units on the attack, things are far from black and white in Mingolla’s life. Preferring to relax and walk the rural villages while his buddies whore, take drugs, pit fight, and carouse in the neon madness that springs up outside army barracks, he spends his r&r time thinking of going AWOL to Panama—an idea his morals prevent him from acting on time and again. Meeting a partially psychic woman in a village one evening changes things, however, and Mingolla’s world begins to spin ever faster.
If R&R sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because the story feels like a combination of Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and other films made of the Vietnam War. Where Shepard makes the novella his own, however, is in the details of Guatemalan life, Mingolla’s character, and, of course, the few elements which are above and beyond reality as we know it. Few stories or movies written or made about the fighting in Central and South America in the 80s, the language, the flora and fauna, the food, and the local people make an old story feel fresh. And fleshing these elements out is Shepard’s style. Physically and emotionally visceral, he cuts to the heart of every scene. The madness of Gilbey, the indifference of the pilots, and especially Mingolla’s own internal battle whether to fight or desert are rendered in vivid, realistic terms. Feeling almost autobiographical, Shepard puts the reader in Mingolla’s shoes in effective fashion.
The idea fertile, shortly after publishing R&R Shepard expanded it into a novel, Life During Wartime. Though there is a sense of closure upon reading the last page of the novella, I can only imagine the novel extends Mingolla’s story in more concrete fashion. Shepard succeeding in transcending black and white morality, the political backdrop is at times hazy. This serves to focus the narrative on Mingolla’s character affectingly, but at the same time, given that the US military and local culture are such prominent parts of his life, one looks for deeper commentary and discussion. I look forward to Life During Wartime for this.
In the end, R&R is a well-written story with strong character impact. Deserving of the awards it won, the novella highlights a soldier’s struggles in the heart of the Guatemalan jungle, living and fighting in a military for ambiguous purpose. Adding to the library of anti-war science fiction, R&R stands alongside Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Greg Bear’s Hardfought, and Karel Capek’s War with the Newts. But perhaps another Haldeman book, Forever Peace, is most similar given the setting and war motif. For anyone interested in more story in this setting, they can either read the previously mentioned novel expansion Life During Wartime or check out The Jaguar Hunter, a collection of short fiction in which three or four stories (depending how picky you want to be) are also set in war torn Central America.
(A side note: for anyone interested in a window into the reality of Central America in the 80s, I highly recommend Salman Rushdie’s The Jaguar Smile: A NicaraguanJourney. A socialist sympathizer, Rushdie was invited to the country for three weeks in 1986, and though not intending to write a book, was affected by what he saw and heard to the point he ended up doing precisely that. His time mostly spent with government administrators, the book has a heavy political slant. One that is relatively objective when it comes to taking sides, Rushdie is as critical of the Nicaraguans form of socialism as he is supportive. The Reagan administration not Americanism the ‘enemy’, that Rushdie also adds more than enough color from the culture and locals makes the quasi-travelogue highly informative and interesting for anyone, myself included, who is less than informed regarding the history of Central America, and in this case, Nicaragua.)