"Misty night, the moon a foggy green streak between the palm fronds, and the surf muffled, sounding like bones being crunched in the mouth of a beast."
That's a line from Lucius Shepard's psychedelic future-war fable, Life During Wartime. Here's some more:
"Overhead, half-hidden by the lifting grey mist, three Sikorskies were hovering. Their pilots were invisible behind layers of mist and reflection, and the choppers themselves looked like enormous carrion flies with bulging eyes and whirling wings. Like devils. Like gods. They seemed to be whispering to one another in anticipation of the feast they were soon to share."
I read Shephard's short-story collection, The Jaguar Hunter, probably 20 years ago, and was impressed by his elegant, jewelled prose. But I have to admit I never got round to reading any of his other works until recently when Life During Wartime glared at me from a bookshelf, as if to say "You bought me, then left me here to gather dust. What'samatter wid ya?" I was about half way through the novel when I found out it was under consideration by the SFX Book Club - great minds think alike! Anyway, enough of my yakkin', on with the review.....
Life During Wartime is set in a fictional future-war in Central America. The US is involved in complicated power-struggles between various Latin-American countries, backed by the Soviets. ( As the book was first published in 1987, before the fall of Communism, the politics are obviously dated. And a major war in that region did seem imminent in the 80's, so transplanting the Vietnam war to Central America must have made sense at the time. ) The only science fictional elements to the story are the psychotropic drugs taken as a matter of course by the military and the introduction of psychic secret-service agents on both sides.
The main character, Mingolla, begins the story as just another grunt, but goes through psychic training and plastic surgery, meets and falls in love with a foreign agent, and finally discovers the ages-old conspiracy that uses the war as just a front. The characters are the book's biggest fault: none of them being very likeable, and most of them callous and desensitized by the war. Our viewpoint character, Mingolla, is pretty much a blank slate - very little is mentioned of his past - who drifts through the story with varying degrees of alienation. The narrative often drifts too, being very episodic and progressing in fits and starts.
OK, so what's good about the book? Well, those two passages at the top might give you a clue. This novel, for me, is all about Shepard's style: a woozy, psychedelic cross between JG Ballard and Graham Greene. The sense of place is palpable: the dense, steaming jungles, the grim military installations, the shattered, war-torn villages. Startling images crop up: millions of butterflies swarming through the jungle, a crashed helicopter as some kind of shrine, a soldier pumped-up on drugs fighting a jaguar with his bare hands. And, strangely, Shepard has a better handle on the book's incidental characters: the villagers, fishermen, lost patrols of jungle-crazy soldiers, prostitutes and revolutionaries - all having more life about them than the main characters. Not an easy read, with its endless digressions and flash-forwards which only serve to confuse, Life During Wartime is still an intriguing, hallucinatory ride through a heart of darkness.