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'Tropic Death' Presents Life's Horrors In Beautiful Prose

Tropic Death, the blunt, specific title for Eric Walrond's story collection, first published more than 85 years ago, couldn't be more apt. These 10 stories indeed have tropical settings — namely, British Guiana, Barbados and the Panama Canal Zone — and death is ever present, as palpable as the bludgeoning heat and suffocating racism that characterize many of these tales.

The title's terseness also signals to the reader she is about to enter an almost unbearably cruel world, one in which Walrond unsentimentally if elegantly observes his themes: envy and lust; power and pride; the paranormal; a natural world that is as savage as it is beautiful; and what it means to withstand debasement by a society perverted by codes of race and class.

The book, if you haven't guessed already, is not comforting. For one, there's the challenging text. As acclaimed Ralph Ellison biographer Arnold Rampersad notes in his thoughtful, informative introduction, "Walrond's commitment to dialect makes Tropic Death difficult reading at times." That's something of an understatement. The regional dialects reproduced on the page are at times so hard to decipher that they must be read aloud to make sense of them. But there's a much bigger reason why this book, which Rampersad calls "one of the outstanding works of fiction of the so-called Harlem Renaissance," is so tough. These stories are disturbing reminders of how utterly vulnerable we are to the injustices of the heart and of community, to say nothing of a wider universe indifferent to our happiness.

Yet among all this brutality and sorrow, Walrond finds splendor, which he captures in his alluring prose. In the story "Panama Gold," about an independent woman who misses her chance at love, he writes this of the punishing Caribbean sun:

Eric Walrond was a writer and journalist during the Harlem Renaissance. <em>Tropic Death</em> was his only book.
/ W.W. Norton & Company
W.W. Norton & Company
Eric Walrond was a writer and journalist during the Harlem Renaissance. Tropic Death was his only book.

"The western sky of Barbadoes was ablaze. A mixture of fire and gold, it burned, and burned — into one vast sulphurous mass. It burned the houses, the trees, the windowpanes. The burnt glass did amazing color somersaults — turned brown and gold and lavender and red. It poured a burning liquid over the gap. It colored the water in the ponds a fierce dull yellowish gold."

And in "The Palm Porch," which details the ruthless machinations of a brothel within the Canal Zone, here's his stark yet gorgeous portrayal of the ransacking of the land:

"After the torch, ashes and ghosts — bare, black stalks, pegless stumps, flakes of charred leaves and half-burnt tree trunks. Down by a stream watering a village of black French colonials, dredges began to work. More of the Zone pests, rubber-booted ones, tugged out huge iron pipes and safely laid them on the gutty bosom of the swamp. Congeries of them. Then one windy night the dredges began a moaning noise. It was the sea groaning and vomiting. Through the throat of the pipes it rattled, and spat stones — gold and emerald and amethyst. All sorts of juice the sea upheaved. It dug deep down, too, far into the recesses of its sprawling cosmos. Back to a pre-geologic age it delved and brought up things."

Tropic Death was published in 1926 by Boni & Liveright, and with its republication this year it's clear new attention is being sought for an overlooked book and its author. Walrond himself was born in in 1898 in what is now Guyana, and moved with his mother to Barbados in 1906, then joined his father in Panama in 1911, where he became fluent in Spanish and worked as a reporter. He moved to New York City in 1918, and eight years later saw published this remarkable story collection rooted in a world he knew so well. Reading Tropic Death, you have to be impressed by his ability to confront life's pitilessness in such exquisitely crafted prose.

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Oscar Villalon
Oscar Villalon is book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. A member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, he's also a long-time juror of the California Book Awards, sponsored by the Commonwealth Club. His writing has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review and The Believer, and his reviews have aired on KQED's The California Report. He lives with his wife and son in San Francisco.