Jesse Pelletier is a Vietnam vet whose marriage broke up long ago. He’s living now in San Juan del Sur, on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua where he makes a living running a modest bed and breakfast style hotel called Ospedaje Gringo Pinolero. “Gringo” of course refers to his North American origins; “pinolero” is a term meaning “dyed in the wool Nicaraguan” – someone who is not averse to drinking pinolo, a drink made of corn flour and only appreciated by natives. So already we are presented with an oxymoron.
In his spare time Jesse is writing “San Juan sketches” that revisit events in Nicaraguan history, compiling a lexicon of Nicaraguan exotica, and writing a novel about another Jesse, somewhat like himself, who might have lived in Nicaragua in the 19th century. His estranged daughter Suzy, freshly graduated from UC Santa Cruz, drops into this scenario to spend a few weeks with dad. In the present historical moment (2000, 21 years after the Sandinista revolution and 10 years after Daniel Ortega was voted out of office with US collusion), there are NGOs helping village women build wells, and ecology-minded youths protesting a plan to build a water passage between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts along a route that would endanger native species. Are the protests linked to the mysterious deaths and disappearances that are taking place? Camilo Sánchez, the young man whom Jesse’s daughter Suzy is taken with, disappears, presumably (but not for certain) the victim of those who resent his opposition to “development,” i.e. the proposed high-speed rail and waterway that is slated to compete with the Panama Canal. Disappearances and murders are part of daily life in contemporary Nicaragua (just as in the writings of the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño).
So we have a mosaic of sorts, with the present-day narration interrupted or rather interspersed with bits of the Nicaragua lexicon, the historical sketches, Jesse’s novel of 19th-century Nicaragua, Jesse’s remembrances of his early sexual encounters and college days in the South during Civil Rights era, his marriage and divorce, as well as deft descriptions of everyday life in San Juan del Sur – these presented in italics – by a third-person narrator. Since these italicized passages also include Jesse’s dreams and Vietnam reminiscences, it seems that this narrator may be Jesse himself, dreaming/imagining the life of the town as he drifts through sleep and wakefulness. Sometimes, though, the italicized passages are newspaper clippings from the present, or excerpts from other printed sources such as old travelogues. The mosaic could also be described as a dream structure, a Joycean stream in which voices from the past intermingle with concerns of the present, and languages (Spanish and English) are used interchangeably, as the protagonist searches for his own essence, his belonging-in-the-world. One of the joys of this novel is Gullette’s magisterial command of language as he unfailingly finds the right tone for each passage, whether it’s a 19th-century woman’s diary, a travel memoir by Mark Twain (who also visited Nicaragua), a historical document, an argument between Vietnam vets, or a stream-of-consciousness moment.
Early on Gullette offers a key to his own aesthetic, as Jesse photoshops a blurry historical photograph: “He knows that he is not just reconstructing but (subtly, tastefully) constructing history. […] In his more lucid moments he recognizes this impulse to ENTER, to Know the Secrets, to Be Intimate at the molecular level, to Redo and Undo, to Cut and Replace for what it is – Dr. Frankenstein’s affliction: a refusal to accept the injuries of time, the insults of death, the plague of the fuzzy and indistinct, the nauseating simulacra, the distance from our grasp of what we want to have and to know” (13f). And yet, as the outlines of the novel’s various strands take shape in the reader’s mind; as the bits and pieces from past and present, dream and wakefulness, description and event come to life, the picture that emerges is one of an understanding of Nicaragua itself as the place where shipwrecked ambition founders on the shore of a sweet surrender to life’s enjoyments, historically as well as in the here and now.
The reader who yields to these pleasures will encounter powerfully written passages. In one such, the tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt grabs the helm of a ship to steer it singlehandedly over the Machuca rapids to open the path from the Atlantic to the Pacific during the California Gold Rush. And here is the voice of the canny capitalist booming out as he describes how to handle the natives: “O, for certain, we’ll do the handsome and promise to cut them in on a piece of the net profits, but it’ll be our boys who keep the books, no won’t it? No gentlemen, don’t you worry a hair on you head. Just you leave them damn fool greasers to me” (28).
One of the most interesting historical figures in the novel is that of William Walker, the adventurer who had his own dreams of Nicaragua. At first he took part in the schemes of Vanderbilt, but between 1855 and 1860 Walker and his mercenaries roamed through the country, battling the natives and burning down Granada in 1856 when it resisted. Walker even took Nicaraguan citizenship and had himself “elected” president; in 1857 he was defeated by a coalition of Central American armies. He was executed by the government of Honduras in 1860.
The story of Walker is one of the legends of the Caribbean and has been forcefully portrayed by Ed Harris in Alex Cox’s 1987 independent film Walker. Gullette’s artistry is employed to full effect here, as the montage of voices gives body and voice to both the instigators of chaos and their victims. Like other parts of the novel, this story is pieced together from many voices/witnesses, all portrayed with consummate skill and with an unerring ear for the authentic: that of the 19th-century Jesse who is imagined as a follower of Walker; his wife Rosita who discovers her sexual preference for women when a certain Mrs. McNight and her sister-in-law Florence appear on the scene en route to San Francisco to meet up with her husband along the Vanderbilt transoceanic route; a Nicaraguan woman married to an Irishman and living in San Juan del Sur; and one of Walker’s own filibusteros, or soldiers of fortune (one of the Nicaraguan lexicon entries explains that this is where the term “filibuster” comes from: “a one-man attempt to disrupt and obstruct communal business for the sake of passionately-held personal beliefs”)(93). Not least, Gullette traces the historical effects of this story from a past century: “The destruction of Granada was…a long step toward the destruction of the Legitimist party; and thus the Americans of Nicaragua were able to cripple their most bitter and consistent foe.”
What emerges from the mosaic of texts and voices is a pattern that leads the reader – “subtly,” as the photoshop description suggests – toward an understanding of the US interventionism and interference that that wracked this country for more than a century and a half. Jesse initially comes to Nicaragua as part of a Veterans for Peace convoy, an attempt to make amends for the official policies of the United States, specifically the civil war in which the US supported the Contras against the Sandinistas, who had thrown out the dictator Somoza in the 1979 Revolution. He joins NGO projects to build schools and wells and latrines, participating in some of the myriad solidarity activities sponsored by churches and communities all over the world, including sister city relationships (Gullette himself has played an active role in one of these for years). But more than that – he feels at home in Nicaragua, more than he can in his home country, because he identifies with the people: not only with their dispossession but with their small joys, their ability to live in the present, their valuation of friendship. So this novel is full of joyous moments even as the horizon is threatened by the dark forces from the North.
Toward the end of the novel Jesse finds himself on a doomed fishing trip with one of his buddies from Vietnam and another vet. After lightning strikes near the boat, the motor and every technological device fails. As the three men wait haplessly to be rescued, Jesse learns that both of his companions were part of the US-backed Contra insurgency. The men are reduced to eating raw tuna and scooping up rainwater to survive, drifting aimlessly on the ocean. It’s a powerful metaphor for US foreign policy, and readers who have followed the story of William Walker and Cornelius Vanderbilt will have no trouble making the connection.
The novel is beautifully produced by Fenway Press, with multiple illustrations. The author has provided a helpful reading guide (“Notes on how to read…”); additional historical set pieces and stories are available at the book’s website.1 By the time I finished the novel, I was hooked so I went to this supplementary material. There I found a wonderful passage by the author:
So for over a hundred and fifty years North Americans have managed to find their way by land, by sea, by air, steampower, sailpower, dieselpower, jetfuel, horseback, burroback, buckboard, surfboard, panga, footleather, in person or in imagination, down to Nicaragua. Some have come for adventure only to meet bullet, cholera or gangrene; some have come for easy money only to be surprised by love; some, who spent their youth amid the smoking ruins of peasant villages and the stench of rotting bodies, have found atonement sweating in Nicaraguan trenches to lay the foundations of country schoolhouses; some have come to check out the scene, only to find themselves drawn in, coaxed in, settling in; and a few have come simply to wait for death.
This is all one story.
Reviewed by Inez Hedges
1. The reading guide may be found at
the book’s website, with additional stories, is at