You Go For Real: A Review of Christian Bauman’s Voodoo Lounge
“When you go, you go for real.” So Christian Bauman begins his second novel, Voodoo Lounge, and he means it. He takes hold of you with his sharp, precise prose and does not let go until the last page.
In September of 1994, American troops landed in Haiti in one of the “Little Wars” of the 1990s. Haiti’s constitutionally elected government had been ousted from power by vicious military leaders, and U.S. troops were sent to maintain order during the transition back to democratic leadership. In Voodoo Lounge, Bauman introduces us to Tory Harris, a fiercely independent sergeant who is the only female in her detachment, and we see the war unfold during its first confusing hours through her eyes. The book gets its title from the machine-gun nest on the port bow where Tory is positioned as the invasion begins. It’s especially appropriate considering the prevalence of the vodoun occultist religion on the island Tory is invading.
The book weaves together the stories of Tory Harris, her ex-boyfriend Junior Davis, and Marc Hall, a Haitian-American Army captain. The story begins on Tory’s Army LSV ship with the invasion, which turns out to be mostly peaceful. As Tory slowly makes her way into this strange new land, trying to determine her purpose through the thick heat that hangs over the island, she meets Marc Hall, a dark, handsome soldier who is able to speak Creole with the natives. After an encounter with the Haitian police, Tory finds herself drawn to Marc, and the two have several more encounters of increasing intensity that end in a raid on a prison near an AIDS hospital.
At the same time, Junior Davis, a former soldier discharged in disgrace, is floating painfully along Haiti’s coast as the machinist on a dilapidated missionary ship. As the story continues and the pieces of Tory’s past are slowly revealed, we learn that she and Junior were entangled in a passionate, alcohol-soaked relationship riddled with infidelity. Bauman paints stunningly realistic portraits of two people addicted to each other, in pain but in love and thus unable to escape, in straightforward prose that spares no unpleasant details. Slowly we learn the horrible secret that tore Tory and Junior apart and led both of them on their very different paths to Haiti.
Tory’s fellow soldiers are also painted with vivid details — her roommate and confidante Dick Wags, her fellow sergeant and Junior’s old roommate Scaboo, and Riddle, who worries that he has been put under a zombie curse by one of the Haitian locals. The whole crew have distinct personalities, which oftentimes clash and which all serve to flavor even further the cramped, “hurry-up-and-wait” lifestyle of the Army LSV ship. There are moments in the book when the military’s absurdity makes for dark, laugh-out-loud humor.
Bauman, a former soldier who served in Somalia and Haiti, doesn’t waste any time explaining military terms, so if you’re not familiar with this world, you find yourself at first plunged into a whirlwind of strange activity. But after a few chapters, this helps rather than hinders the story by making the reader feel very much a part of the sometimes fast-paced, sometimes painfully slow, always confusing world of an enlisted soldier.
And confusion apparently reigns supreme in Haiti, where soldiers are unsure of why they are there and what their duties are. In more than one instance, soldiers witness acts of incredible violence inflicted on the Haitian people by the country’s corrupt police force, but are rendered helpless when they are ordered not to intervene. A refrain that echoes through Tory’s head aptly describes the situation: “Is it war or is it not?”
Junior Davis’s missionary ship, which is constantly on the brink of falling apart, and which carries a crew of well-meaning Christians with little to do, floats eerily along the coast of Haiti as a constant reminder that try as he might, Jesus has little to do with the Haitian people’s redemption. Junior unreliably tends to ship parts that are in a state of disrepair that parallels his own physical and emotional distress. We rarely see Davis without a bottle of booze in hand and a girl by his side, destructive palliatives for his deteriorated body.
The three main characters’ paths finally converge in a nighttime raid on a squalid prison. Each has a distinct motivation for being there, and when the raid ends, each goes in a different direction. The triangle is broken and the three will not cross paths again. And because we now understand them, we feel confident that each character is going in the right direction — however difficult or unpleasant it may be.
As in his first novel about soldiers in Somalia, The Ice Beneath You, Bauman paints a military world that is convincing and important to experience. He focuses on characters that are real and flawed, soldiers who haven’t risen through the ranks to glory and prestige but everyday people who are struggling to overcome their own personal downfalls while keeping their boots shined and their guns clean. Bauman’s honest yet lyrical language gives us insights into his characters that help us slowly but surely understand what makes them all tick. We get to intimately witness flawed people stumbling towards their own flawed versions of redemption, and it’s fascinating to watch.
Hailed as an important new voice in military writing, Bauman lives up to the acclaim by making his books not only honest and powerful, but also accessible, showcasing the wars that most Americans quickly forgot and their effects on individual lives. Bauman proves himself yet again to be a powerhouse writer who knows how to go, and how to go for real.
Raquel B. Pidal is Managing Editor for Wild River Publishing, providing copyediting, content editing, and manuscript analysis services. She enjoys using her extensive knowledge of the writing and publishing process to provide guidance and coaching to writers every step of the way from idea to polished draft to printed book.
Raquel has over a decade of professional writing and editing experience in both fiction and nonfiction. Her projects have included ghostwriting two memoirs; content editing numerous manuscripts in the fields of memoir, fiction, and business; copyediting and proofreading manuscripts; and providing in-depth analyses and critiques of fiction and nonfiction manuscripts.
Raquel is currently the Editorial Director for Winans Kuenstler Publishing, a high-end trade nonfiction publisher that offers ghostwriting and publishing services to business and thought leaders who use their books as a platform for their professional and personal brands. She is experienced in project and content management and book distribution.
Previously, Raquel worked in the publicity department at Harvard University Press for two years. She has also worked as an editor for corporations such as ETS (Educational Testing Services) and Aramark. For three years, she served as Program and Youth Services Director at the Writers Room of Bucks County, where she and Joy Stocke worked together on the literary magazine The Bucks County Writer.
Raquel has a BA in English with a minor in Creative Writing from Ursinus College, where she won several awards and honors for her writing, and an MA in Publishing and Writing from Emerson College.
Articles by Raquel Pidal
Book Reviews: Voodoo Lounge
Essays: Around the Block
Letters From Around The World: Cuban Couch
PEN World Voices: The Future is Now – Opening Night at the 11th Annual PEN World Festival