Reviewed by Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 1965-66)
It’s a forever story, little guy armed with idealism takes on big, bad, and corrupt. This evergreen theme kindles, and rekindles, the flame of hope. We keep turning the pages to find out about Evil vs Good, the tag team Greed/Power against Humanity/Right. Can justice prevail? Is it possible that personal integrity need not be a sacrificial lamb on the altar of you lose, I win? Do the good guys have a fighting chance?
The destruction of the Brazilian Amazon is a reoccurring headline of doom; the oxygen-giving rainforest decimated for profit; the indigenous peoples murdered for their land, their way of life transformed into poverty and cultural extermination. American professor Luke Shannon takes a group of students from Seattle University on a study mission to investigate the effect of Big Business Agriculture on the Amazon rainforest. The is the premise of Stephen Murphy’s novel, Brazilian Odyssey.
One of the students, Tatiana, a native of the Brazilian Amazon, has her own agenda: To revenge the murder of her cousin, a leader against the assault on Guajajara tribal land by agricultural corporations supported by government policies. She was “returning to the shrine of her bloodline and her tribal past,” Murphy tells us. In the mix is a Columbian drug lord, a muckraker journalist on the government’s hit list, a bent senator who is the president’s son, and a Brazilian professor/reporter ardent about fate of the environment, also on the government’s watch list. This is a promising stew for the author to conjure a satisfying feast of intrigue.
The narrative jostles along, a raft floating downstream toward the excitement of promised rapids, but gets hung up in riffles, preambles that never deliver a satisfying thill, either in action or in emotions. The students never go into the field to see the effects of Big Ag on the rainforest. Their brief stay in Brazil is nothing more than a meet-and-greet, and eat in restaurants. Their professor also does no fieldwork, but relies on informants—and the author’s own background of knowing.
Murphy lived in the Brazil for years as an investment banker and consultant to firms expanding in South America. He knows the alliances of corruption between government, military, police, drug lords, and big business raptors. He connected with environment groups and the indigenous peoples that push back to protect the land and the right to live unmolested. Murphy also served as regional director, Inter-Americas, for the Peace Corps.
Murphy is good at describing the cities, living conditions, details of local lore and the food, which lends authenticity; for example, native cooks using the pirarucu’s (a fish) large tongue studded with sharp teeth to grate chicory roots. Clouds of words are atmospheric at the expense of good storytelling. Lines of tension fade behind the descriptions; plot ingredients separate out instead blending; emotions are told rather than shown. The reportage misses the point of fiction; to offer the experience of crossing the mountain pass before we cross it, to give us a feeling for the routes we might take, to paraphrase the writer, Joshua Rothman. Fiction gives the sense of how a journey feels; that sense is not fact but gives fact meaning.
Tatiana, a fervent environmentalist, is presented as a “Guajajara warrior demanding justice for her people.” But inexplicably, and unexplained as if parachuting out of the clouds, she lands in the bed of the Columbian drug dealer who, as a sideline, is aligned with criminals harvesting the rainforest prized hardwood and, through bribes, arranges the illegal export. He is portrayed as a businessman and a family man, and a martyred hero. He describes her as “his firebrand lover.” We must take his word, as the author never shows us her fire. She is enthralled with her lover, even rides in his private jet, a very environmental unfriendly form of transportation. She worries about the danger her lover puts himself in while doing his illegal business. He’s a gun-wielding drug lord with a predilection for thoroughbred race horses; violence is his business. Her loving concern is unconvincingly explained. The contradictions compromise the reader’s trust.
Chapters end with a tagline, obvious as a blinking arrow, to encourage the reader forward, a serial soap opera device. Frivolous adjectives clutter sentences (“angry waves,” “rumbling clouds”), needless sparklers that blind the reader’s imagination. Readers enjoy adding their own bits of color and personal flourish that put them in the story. An author should trust the reader to enhance the tale.
The plot is knitted together, rather than the story organically revealing itself. The muckraking journalist is patched in when an incompetent assassin bumbles the assassination. Tatiana goes off with son of her dead drug lord lover, a romantic rainbow that blossoms in the wrap-up-happy-ending. The professor, Luke Shannon, becomes the last-minute godfather to the son of man he had not seen for decades. He bathed himself in sentimentality as destruction of the rainforest continued at a record rate.
Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 1965-66) is the author of numerous fiction and nonfiction books. His latest novel, BIX, Because I Exist, released in August 2022. (See Stephen Foehr.com)