Savoring A Drink Called Paradise by Terese Svoboda

Not a page went by in A Drink Called Paradise when I wasn't stunned by the talent of Terese Svoboda.  Svoboda wrote prose so potent in her second novel I'm tempted to go euphemistic and overstate its explosive power and call it atomic.  Only I wouldn't be overstating.  For almost every sentence in A Drink Called Paradise, and certainly every paragraph, visceral as they are in ideas, clues, and images, could pass for poems.  No real surprise there, because prior to A Drink Called Paradise's publication by Counterpoint in 1999, she'd authored three books of poetry, All Aberration, Laughing Africa, and Mere Mortals.

Like her contemporary, Denis Johnson, Terese Svoboda was first a poet and then a novelist.  A Drink Called Paradise, in fact, is strikingly similar in style, brevity, and emotional intensity, to Denis Johnson's Train Dreams.  Both novellas feature protagonists on the run from shockwaves of grief and loss.  Ground zero for Robert Grainier, the leading man of Train Dreams, was the cabin fire that killed his wife.  Grief's merciless reverberations nearly upended Grainier a decade later, when his daughter, presumed dead in the fire, reappears, disfigured not by flames but by an inadvertent abandonment to forces in the wild that burned her beyond recognition from the inside out.  Granier, understandably devastated, exits and never returns.  Thereafter existing in a waking trance, moving from one odd job to another, a hermit until his death.

design by Amy Evans McClure
Clare's no hermit.  She's pure combustion and raw attitude and yet submerged rage, narrating A Drink Called Paradise in the first person. Clare has likewise been burned from within and without.  Divorce.  The death of her ten year old son.  Self-recriminations and self-doubt abound. She is gravely ill with guilt by the time we meet her.  No wonder she flees into the solace of work, a driven and demanding perfectionist in advertising who takes to the South Pacific on the hunt, island after island, for the exact image of paradise she's envisioned in her head to induce massive sales of a certain soda for which she leads the marketing charge.  She's got the right slogan written down, she just needs to find the right shade of sand now, the right hues of blue and glitter in sky and sea and sun, to ensconce that perfect illusion behind her words.  These are details easier for Clare to process than dealing with the sudden passing of her only child, her son.  "One drink and you think you're Eve, that's what I wrote.  If you can drink this drink, you can live in paradise is mine too ... everybody wants paradise, it's all dollar signs.

"Not pearly gates."

Such is Clare's fate in advertising and sales.  Such has been Clare's life outside of advertising and sales.  A surface paradise in L.A. where shallowness is celebrated and authenticity considered the equivalence of weakness or disease.  Oh how terribly ironic it is that Clare, seeking paradise, has escaped paradise completely, and found what amounts to a tropical prison instead.  An island so remote it doesn't even have its own brochure.  Doesn't even have a boat.  Once Clare's film crew got wind of where they were, they got the hell out before the boat that brought them left.  Leaving while their boss, tenacious but clearly tired, Clare, slept.  Tells you how much they cared for Clare, or perhaps how poorly she cared for them.  Natives do inhabit this mysterious and deserted island seemingly of their own free will; an island that's an "atoll" technically speaking, ringed as it is by a reef roughly two miles wide.  Strange, though, that the natives eat only fish that's canned rather than caught.  Weeks go by; months; and Clare doesn't see a single fisherman or swimmer, except for the odd son of her hostess, the native, Ngarima's.  Odd because the boy's head is so shrunken, disproportionate in size to the rest of him.  He lays all day, everyday, on a surfboard in the lagoon. And Ngarima, when asked about him, barely bats what's left of her eyelashes in response.

So maybe the natives are a little odd, a little off, but who's Clare to judge them or their dump without amenities that is their island?  After all, not every South Pacific island has lush landscaping and lavish accommodations, but surely there's more than these dirt-floored, aluminum-sided and -ceiling'd shanties for refuge.  They're not much shelter from wind or rain, though from sunshine they serve just fine.  Nor do they protect the rare accidental tourist like Clare from the unwelcome advances of native men or unnaturally large arthropods.  How exactly do cockroaches and crustaceans get that big?  Where are the happy hula girls in grass skirts and skimpy tops you see in all the T.V. commercials and magazine ads?  Or the thatched roof huts that practically levitate above the waters when the sun hangs low and long shadows disguise their stilt supports?

Clare's likely known the reality of the island longer than she'd dare admit.  When a ship arrives and drops anchor outside the reef, and in come the boats through the break -- as they've come twice a year for years -- Clare can no longer glance the other way from the obvious, as all the clues that had accreted all these months on this abandoned island now crystallize into a shape that's as undeniable as it is unconscionable before her eyes.  Once on deck the research vessel, all she wants to know is why?  Why?  Inasmuch as she's literally asking the scientists and ship's security and eventually the reluctant ship's captain, why oh fucking WHY?, she's more accusing whatever indifferent forces that may or may not exist out there, somewhere in the Cosmos, responsible for letting her son die.

When the scientists respond to her increasingly shrill inquiries with rationalizations for the government sponsored suffering the result of longitudinal testing on the longterm effects of too much radiation on the health and well being of humans, and then downplay the ongoing displacement of generations of Pacific Islanders without apology, perhaps then in desperation, Clare looked up into the night and saw "stars in absolute excess".  Do keep in mind what was mentioned at the outset regarding Terese Svoboda's "atomic prose" and observe close her next sentence that could pass for poem:

author photo: Bill Hayward
"We sit in absolute dark here, an aurora borealis in reverse, black paint sucking the stars closer than even the stars on the island, which will surely someday set fire to the tops of the palms, fronds waving once too often against their white light."

With dreadful lucidity, Clare sees the stars for what they are: "hot little islands".

Hot little islands like the one she just left.  What were the odds, factoring in the losses Clare had already accumulated, that they'd only be compounded, when in search for the perfect paradise backdrop in the South Pacific to compliment her soda pop propaganda campaign, she'd land instead upon the ruined beaches of Paradise's antithesis (not quite Hell but an Inferno nonetheless), known as the "hottest little island" on Earth?  Might be enough, being the unlucky benefactor of damnable odds like that, to make even a person of Clare's proven resiliency, jump ship forever for those stars.


To read a chapter excerpt from A Drink Called Paradise and Terese Svoboda's commentary about her novel and its personal connection to the "Nuclear Legacy in the South Pacific," go right here.