By Lucius Shepard
Night Shade Books, 2005
Trujillo first was published in 2004, as the title piece in PS Publishing’s massive collection of Lucius Shepard’s recent fantasy. Now Night Shade Books has done us the favor of reprinting the story as a standalone volume, (1) allowing those of us who missed its first appearance a second chance to encounter it. (2) Like much of Shepard’s best work, Trujillo is a novella, and an illustration of why Henry James called that length "the blessed form." It is long enough for the writer to develop his narrative in some depth, yet still short enough to concentrate that narrative’s effect. The effect of this particular story is considerable.
The story takes place in Trujillo, the Honduran town that has served as the setting for several of Shepard’s recent works (including "Señor Volto"  and "The Park Sweeper" ). Its plot appears straightforward enough: Dr. Arturo Ochoa, a psychiatrist, is conducting a series of therapy sessions with William Stearns. Ochoa is Honduran, middle-aged, disappointed by life: his career has not amounted to much; his wife has (apparently) left him; his daughter does not respect him. Stearns is American, young, arrogant: it is not just that he is the only son of a wealthy father—there is something ugly, violent about his personality. This is of special concern to the doctor, because his visits with Stearns have a serious purpose. The American has been found adrift on a boat owned by a Nicaraguan father and son, neither of whom is anywhere around and who are presumed dead; the question is what, if anything, the American—who seems amnesiac—had to do with their deaths. For the time being, Stearns’s father has bought off the local officials, but he has retained Dr. Ochoa to learn what actually happened to his son.
The doctor’s success, however, has been limited, not least by his dislike for Stearns, whom Shepard presents as fairly unlikable, spoiled and sarcastic. As the novel begins, Stearns presents Ochoa with an image, a memory he claims to have recovered from the eighteen-day blank that is his time at sea. It is of a massive whirlpool—large enough, Stearns says, to swallow the Titanic—which is spinning backwards, so that instead of carrying objects from the surface of the sea to its bottom, it is bringing them up from the depths. At the center of the whirlpool, he sees a large statue, a square block of stone on whose top have been carved a crude head and shoulders. Stearns describes the statue as an idol, and in response to the Doctor’s questioning says that the face was animal, possibly that of a bird. This is all he remembers; what happened before or after, the fates of the Nicaraguans, remain obscure.
The image of the whirlpool with the stone idol at its heart is suggestive. We might take it as a trope for the therapeutic process in which Stearns and Ochoa are engaged, trying to drag up obdurate memory from where it lies hidden. We may take it as a trope for the self, for the individual psyche, spinning material up to our conscious minds from our primitive cores. The images trope area’s history, as well, emblemizing the weight of the past spiraling its influence to the present. Therapy, the self, history are recursive, looping out and around from their silent, stony origins. The novel’s plot bears the trope out. Locally, the doctor's fifteen-year-old daughter, Lizeth, grows more willful, more independent, every day, and in the steadily escalating tension between them, the doctor hears the echo of his relationship with his wife, which deteriorated dramatically in the months before she disappeared. More globally, Stearns has detailed knowledge of the area's history that tells the same tale of violence over and over again.
The story moves ahead on two tracks, following Dr. Ochoa and Stearns as they follow parallel courses. Initially, this means their pursuit of women: for the doctor, Maria, the bartender at Gringos, an open-air bar; for Stearns, Suyapa, the proprietor of a drink stand. Shepard's fiction has often used male-female relationships to figure an abiding concern with how we relate to the world around us. Men and women able to establish sympathetic, caring relationships with one another stand a chance of wholeness, while those who remain trapped in narcissism (and frequently, cruelty) are lost, damned. For Shepard, the complexities of a romantic relationship may be the best figure for the interactions of the self with the world around it. At first, it appears that the doctor is on the road to wholeness, Stearns destined for ruin. The doctor's advances towards Maria succeed, and they consummate their attraction on the beach. Stearns has a more difficult time with Suyapa, who remains wary of him, shrewdly perceptive of his motives, so he indulges in a brief affair with Dalila, the dinner cook in his hotel, that is founded on cruelty and degradation. In the midst of their separate courses, the men continue to meet for their therapy sessions.
Yet Shepard is interested in giving us something more than an almost stereotypical portrait of the decent but impotent colonial, the corrupt and decadent colonizer. Dr. Ochoa is plagued by vivid dreams in which his daughter engages in sexual activity with shadowy men, only to transform into his wife; he inadvertently spies on Lizeth masturbating. Stearns does not abandon his interest in Suyapa, who becomes an ever-more-convoluted character: incisive, probably possessed of supernatural abilities, a witch or sorceress. In the meantime, Shepard gives us a pair of loaded images. The first is an abandoned freighter, washed onto a sandbar during a hurricane five years before. Encountering the ship, it is hard not to be reminded of the grounded ship that gives its name to another of Shepard's recent works, the novella Viator (2004). Clearly, the image of the trapped ship compels him. Trujillo's ship is never given a name, but its importance to the narrative escalates, as it moves from a symbol for the stalled self to the site of a crime—and therefore the symbol for the shipwreck of a relationship, and back to symbol for the stalled self, only, one stalled because of its inability to face its own terrible actions.
The other weighted image Shepard gives us comes in a dream that Stearns narrates to the doctor, a dream that has Dr. Ochoa as its protagonist. In Stearns's dream, a younger, more virile version of the doctor chases his wife and her lover to a bar. This doctor, however, is accompanied by a giant dog, a breed of mastiff, that he unleashes upon whoever incurs his displeasure. His wife's lover has fled the bar already; the doctor sends the dog after him. When it returns, its muzzle is thick with gore. His anger appeased, the doctor turns to go, pushing his wife home ahead of him. The dog remains in front of the bar, expectant, and with some irritation, the Doctor tells it it can have one—whereupon it thrusts its enormous head into the bar and emerges with a young boy, whom it proceeds to treat as a living toy, throwing him up in the air and catching him. The boy is dead quickly, but the dog continues to play with his corpse.
The dream blends the story's earlier references to dogs, and anticipates Trujillo's stark finish. From the dream, Stearns draws two lessons. In broad terms, Stearns argues, his dream represents the persistent oppression that has governed the lives of the town's inhabitants for centuries. In a more narrow sense, Stearns believes that his dream is prophetic, that he has glimpsed the doctor's future. By this point, the dream's prophetic quality is not quite so difficult to believe as it would have been after the story's opening pages, but it will take more for us to be fully convinced. First, Dr. Ochoa will have to recover a repressed memory of his own.
Before that happens, he and we learn something of the significance of the statue in Stearns's vision. Stearns has made a drawing of it, which he has presented to the doctor, who has faxed it to an old friend who is a university professor. The friend writes back to identify the statue as the work of the Taino, the extinct inhabitants of the West Indies. How the statue came to Trujillo is a mystery, although the doctor's friend speculates that Columbus may have been responsible. In any event, until recently, it has been in the possession of men of authority: military leaders, governors, and so on. Then it was stolen from a bank vault and presumed lost. As for its significance: it represents a demon; although which demon, the doctor's friend cannot say. Apparently, the Taino created images of such things in an effort to control them, believing that the forces the idols represented would come to be housed in them and therefore become more amenable to the Taino. If their ploy was unsuccessful, though, they risked the entities they had sought to control possessing them. When this happened, their only hope was to destroy all the images of that particular demon in an attempt to convince it to ignore them. Since the statue Stearns has drawn was the only one of its kind, Dr. Ochoa's friend supposes that it represented an extremely powerful and malevolent force, one whose other images already had been smashed when Columbus and his men arrived to carry this one off.
The idol's history clarifies another of Trujillo's concerns, which is with representation. Stearns is struggling to recover his missing memory, a memory that includes a representation that should not have been made and that, we understand, has taken possession of him. Dr. Ochoa, we learn in the pages that follow, also has been repressing a memory, and a significant one at that: he is directly (and violently) responsible for his wife's disappearance. His memory surfaces in a masterful, extended hallucination that takes him wading out to the abandoned freighter, whose ruptured hull now symbolizes the escape of the crime he has been trying to repress. Suddenly, the doctor's part in the narrative is revealed as permeated by a vast irony: he has been struggling to enable Stearns to recover his possibly murderous past while his own, definitely homicidal actions have been buried in his mind. The idol would seem to trope the dangers of representing some things—some knowledge, it may be, is best left alone.
Even as the doctor is retrieving his worst actions, Stearns is consummating his relationship with Suyapa in another hallucinatory sequence. As they make love, Stearns feels himself taken control of by Suyapa, who uses their lovemaking as the opportunity to exorcise the entity inhabiting him. Together, this pair of surreal passages mark a crossing-over point in the narrative. Thanks to Suyapa's attentions, Stearns will be free of the evil that has had hold of him. Freshly evicted, that evil seeks a new home, which it finds in the doctor, newly awakened to his crimes. When he returns from his excursion, Dr. Ochoa first buys a vote in his upcoming race for mayor, then returns home to be subject to a rush of memories, images of local atrocities stretching back over the centuries. Entering his daughter's room, he uses a tube of her lipstick to draw the statue's features over his, an act whose significance is clear. In the crossing over of the demon from Stearns to the Doctor, Shepard thus literalizes (and puns on) one of the terms central to psychoanalysis: transference.
Both Stearns and Ochoa are acted upon by forces outside their control and understanding. This is no less true at Trujillo's end. Stearns, cleansed of the malevolence, is about to return to the United States accompanied by Suyapa, to whom he will be married shortly. The doctor has embraced his possession, and appears to become the next mayor of the town. His newfound cruelty is evident in his treatment of Maria, whom he has quickly terrorized into submission. The demon is ready to return to business as usual. But there is one final wrinkle to the plot, one last attempt by Suyapa to insure that the evil inhabiting Dr. Ochoa will be defeated. Whether she succeeds in an ultimate sense is perhaps open to debate, but in a more immediate way, she protects the town from the Doctor's threat. The novel concludes with a savage, striking image.
Trujillo's closing pages offer a good example of the strengths of Shepard's prose. From the stories collected in The Jaguar Hunter (1987), Shepard's stylistic abilities and ambitions have been clear, and his most recent work has more than borne out that early promise. He is one of the finest writers now working of the long sentence, braiding long strands of words that he is able to control with a flick of the wrist. His prose can take us deep inside a character's interior architecture, or give us a description of place sharp as broken glass. It is hard not be reminded of Garcia Marquez, Faulkner, Proust.
The last several years have brought us a flood of new stories from Lucius Shepard. To say that Trujillo is among the finest of them is no small praise. Shepard already has established himself as a writer who matters; with each new work, he cements that standing. For those unfamiliar with his fiction, Trujillo is a good introduction. For those who continue to follow his career, it is another cause for celebration.
- The limited edition of the novella comes with a DVD tour of the town, narrated by Shepard. It was not seen for this review, but would be fascinating to watch. [Back]
- Some, though not all of the rest of the collection has been reprinted in Eternity and Other Stories (2005), from Thunder's Mouth Press. [Back]