Out in the All of It
by Chris Honoré (Colombia 1967–69)
Reviewed by Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962–64)
THIS CHARMING SHORT COLLECTION of sketches about Honoré’s Peace Corps life in Colombia in the late sixties touches all the familiar themes –– isolation, confusion, ineptitude, fear of going over a cliff in a bus, longing to go home, wonder, growing confidence, feelings of connectedness, apprehension about going home — and explores them with both skill and a becoming modesty.
At the last big Peace Corps get-together, the 25th anniversary conference in Washington, a bunch of us Ethiopia-ones admitted to one another what we were thinking on that initial bus ride from the Addis Ababa airport to the university: “God, what have I done!” Honoré’s early months as a teacher trainer in Cartagena were like that. Alone and feeling constantly clumsy and misplaced, Honore wonders how he on earth he had landed in this strange place. “What was I thinking? John Kennedy, who lived in the White House and had room service, called for volunteers, challenging them to ask what they could do for their country . . . . And guess who had raised his hand? Yours truly. It wasn’t Kennedy sitting on an atoll in the middle of the ocean five thousand miles from a Laundromat. Hadn’t someone, in a lucid moment, pointed out that you should never volunteer? Isn’t that written somewhere?”
Some of Honoré’s tales of his early blundering are wonderful. He goes into a “restaurant” and orders lunch. The two women running the place seem puzzled, but they serve up a nice meal. Not long after, Honoré is informed that the “restaurant” was actually a laundry.
One of the best sketches is about a Volunteer named Paco whose two-year tour is nearly up. He’s a reassuring presence for Honore. Paco has overcome his own isolation with frequent visits to Cartagena’s “obscure bars, often spending time with locals, men in soiled, deeply wrinkled linen suits, and women in garish satin dresses stretched tightly across their round abdomens.” Honoré does not follow that particular path, but he does accompany Paco on one of his regular visits to the small window in the wall of a nunnery. When Paco knocks, the window opens and a small white hand places a bag of leftover communion bread on a shelf before the window slides shut. Paco has become obsessed by the hand. He has concluded that it belongs to a lovely young novitiate who has not yet taken her final vows. Paco is in love with her — or his idea of her — and he is determined to lay eyes on, or even meet, this vision of purity and loveliness. Honoré fears that Paco has turned into what some other Colombia Volunteers had become after a year or so, “twitchy and strange.” But after Paco heads home, the winsome novitiate lives on vividly in Honoré’s head, if nowhere else in his apparently loveless life, and she lingers on in the reader’s mind, too.
These sketches are at their best when Honoré trusts his talent to set a scene and bring characters to life in an understandable way; a piece called “La Escoba De Dios,” about a widow known locally as “the broom of God,” is haunting. Occasionally Honoré butts into his own sketches to tell us what they mean. He’s a good enough writer that there’s no need for that. The final piece in the book, about learning that Bobby Kennedy has been killed, doesn’t quiet work, either. No words can capture the bottomless sadness.
Honoré doesn’t have much to say about his teacher-training work. But it must have been worthwhile, for he sticks out the two years even as others give up and go home. A feature of the early Peace Corps — lamentably long gone — that helps Honoré and others stay sane until they begin to move out of themselves and connect with Colombian life is the book locker. Can’t somebody get that put back?
I’m guessing that Out in the All of It will resonate with today’s Peace Corps Volunteers — and anybody who enjoys smart, flavorful story-telling — as much as it does with old-timers like me. But there are details here that are especially entertaining to those of us who, for example, prior to JFK’s long-ago call to service, had never before laid eyes on a bidet.
Richard Lipez writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson. Red White Black and Blue, a political thriller, will be published next fall.