Second novels are difficult, especially if an author has had the good fortune of a well-received first novel. However, unlike the first book, which an author has been working on (intentionally or not) for a lifetime, the next book has a much shorter production timeline, as well as the built-in anxiety that accompanies much higher expectations. There’s pressure for the author to replicate whatever made the first a success, to offer more of that uniqueness that readers fell in love with, while at the same time demonstrating that he or she has range and new ideas and thematic freshness. An author wants to write something different, but not that different.
(Sarah Crichton Books, 2016)
Mischa Berlinski’s new novel, his second, illustrates this tension. His first book, Fieldwork, was a finalist for the National Book Award when it was published in 2007. Now, nine years later, comes Peacekeeping, his second novel.
The two books seemingly have a lot in common. In Fieldwork, a slacker journalist named Mischa Berlinski follows his girlfriend to Thailand, where she gets a job teaching English, while he mostly just hangs out and does some half-hearted freelance assignments when they happen to come his way. But when he hears the bare outline of a story about an American anthropologist who commits suicide in a Thai prison, where she had been serving a life sentence for murdering a missionary, the fictional Berlinski awakens from his languid expat existence and devotes himself to piecing together this unsettling tale.
Peacekeeping also features a writer as narrator, who has followed his wife to the tropical, troubled island of Haiti with the intention of working on a novel. The narrator and his wife, who works for the UN but is otherwise kept so vague as to border on nonexistent, live in “one of the most beautiful houses in all of Haiti.” The narrator, who is unnamed but shares a lot of biographical traits with the author, spends hot afternoons on the pleasantly shaded veranda, dozing and eating mangos and drinking lemonade, and evenings in a rocking chair, watching the clouds. But the reader senses that the description of the narrator’s uncomplicated, idyllic—if monotonous—days portend the imminent arrival of some plot disruption.
Peacekeeping opens with a banal yet ominous italicized first-person account of interrogation technique, told from the point of view of the unnamed interrogator. “What you have to understand is that a professionally conducted interrogation is not fair,” he explains.
The story gets going after this opening, shifting to the Berlinski-esque narrator, who, in the remote town of Jérémie, befriends a former deputy sheriff from Florida with the admittedly improbable name Terry White, a big blan with a bigger personality, who landed in Haiti after he went broke in the 2007 financial collapse and found a job training Haitian police as part of a UN peacekeeping mission. That italicized opening was delivered, the reader quickly realizes, by Terry White, who has a rhetorical tic of starting stories by explaining what the listener needs to understand.
“What you got to understand is that Haiti is a lot like pussy,” White explains in the first chapter. “It’s hot and it’s wet and it smells funny. You didn’t know about pussy, somebody told you about pussy, you wouldn’t think you’d like it much. Probably think it was something nasty. But you get to know pussy, you can’t stop thinking about it ever.”
Details about our unnamed narrator remain scant. Although he doesn’t particularly like Terry, he encounters him frequently enough that his story becomes the narrative, while the unnamed narrator’s story is barely told, presumably because Terry doesn’t care: “Terry was not interested in me. Not once did he ask what brought me to Haiti, what my work consisted of, or where my family was from. But had he pressed the issue, I would have told him that I had followed my wife here: she was a civilian employee of the United Nations, working as a procurement officer; and I would have mentioned that I intended to use my time in Haiti, after a decade working as a journalist, to complete a novel. Terry’s sole attempt to broach the conversational divide was to ask where my wife and I were living.” And with that brief nod to the biographical details of our narrator, we are back to Terry’s story.
At times, however, their two stories intertwine. The narrator and his wife are renting their beautiful Haitian house from Maxim Bayard, a powerful local senator, whose assured political seat Terry persuades a local judge named Johel to challenge. But such snarls seem easily untied. “Mild days coalesced into calm weeks, and I heard nothing more from either Terry or the judge. They had their destiny and I had mine; and mine involved swaying in a hammock in the afternoon while my wife was at work,” the narrator says, virtually cueing the impending plot development. Soon Terry is having an affair with the wife of the judge, an American-trained Haitian lawyer, which gets even more complicated by frequent visits from Terry’s blonde wife Kay, who then befriends our narrator.
The stage is set for intrigue, and, for the most part, the novel delivers. There is love and jealousy and corruption. In real life, Berlinski, a former journalist who had lived in Thailand, moved to Jérémie in 2007, when his wife got a job working for the UN Peacekeeping Mission. During the four years he spent living in Haiti, he wrote dispatches for the New York Review of Books, and, presumably, worked on his novel. But despite the obvious similarities between Mischa Berlinski the writer and the unnamed narrator, Berlinski cautions the reader in an author’s note that his work is fiction, not fact. “Nothing that I have written here should be taken as true in the journalistic sense of the word: the characters, scandals, and successes depicted in these pages are all products of my imagination,” he writes. Still, in Peacekeeping, Berlinski ably depicts the details of day-to-day life in Haiti—the way that failures of infrastructure lead to poverty and hunger, and the way that do-gooders, power-hungry politicians, and average people fleeing disappointment and anonymity back home from a multinational community converge and clash—with the skill of a reporter and the art of a novelist.
Of course, it ends with disaster. Just as no book can take place in New York City in 2001 and avoid the impending events of September 11, given the time and setting of Peacekeeping, it would be highly surprising if the story didn’t end with the 2009 Haitian earthquake. Once again, Berlinski delivers.
Yet despite its slim cast of characters and the relatively confined setting, Peacekeeping fails to dig deep into either. A vague impression of personality types rather than complex characters pervades, like a story reported second-hand, rather than experienced first-hand. Berlinski follows the surface intrigue but never goes deeper below. And his narrator keeps his distance too, from the action, from the characters, and, finally, from the reader. A stylistic choice, to be sure, but one that seems to lessen our engagement. Mr. Berlinski is a very strong writer. He manages to convey a subtle, casual humor through crisp, unexpected phrasing and elegant sentences. But ultimately, it’s hard to feel more emotionally invested than our detached narrator.