Salvador by Shepard, Lucius, 1984

Salvador by Shepard, Lucius

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In a war with the Sandinistas in Guatemala and El Salvador, a patrol of American soldiers pillage and kill. They are amped up on government drugs that center their concentration, remove their fears and make them just shy of foolhardy. They are highly efficient killers, but they are starting to go insane as a side effect of the drugs, and probably also from the carnage resulting from orders that they are forced to carry out. They regularly kill children, throw captured soldiers out of helicopters, and murder anyone who wanders onto the battlefield. Many of the soldiers in the patrol are starting to resist command, but the sergeant keeps them in line by forcing them to consume the drugs at gun point. The main conflict is between Dantzler, a soldier, and his psychotic commander, DT. Dantzler's father was a sociologist and prepared him for his station by telling him about local customs, culture and religion. The locals believed that each region, town and village has its own powerful magician to protect it from enemies, and they also believed that once the body died the soul goes to a sort of Limbo where it continues to do what it was doing when its body died. Dantzler had told every one in the patrol about the legends, and some of the soldiers started to believe that they are dead and in Limbo, awaiting the death of their souls. DT keeps them moving through the jungle, making them amp up as their confidence slipped. But as they moved forward Dantzler started to hear what he believed to be one of the local warlocks urging him to kill his comrades. Eventually Dantlzer came to believe that he was possessed by the warlock, whereupon he murdered everyone in the patrol.

After killing everyone in the patrol Dantzler was picked up and sent home on a psych discharge. Once he arrived home he became a recluse and stayed away from his friends and family, until one of his old buddies called to invite him to a send off, as he has been drafted and is going to go to El Salvador. His friend asks Dantzler to come to the party so that they can talk about what the war zone is like. Dantzler agreed, but had other plans:

He would have liked very much to drive home and forget about his promise to Phil; however, he felt a responsibility to explain about the war. More than a responsibility, an evangelistic urge. He would tell them about the kid falling out of the chopper, the white-haired girl in Tecolutla, the emptiness, God, yes! How you went down chock full of ordinary American thoughts and dreams, memories of smoking weed and chasing tail and hanging out and freeway flying with a case of something cold, and how you smuggled back a human shaped container of pure Salvadorian emptiness. Primo grade. Smuggled it back to the land of silk and money, of mindfuck video games and topless tennis matches and fast-food solutions to the nutritional problem. Just a taste of Salvador would banish all those trivial obsessions. Just a taste. It would be easy to explain.

As interesting as this story is, and even though Shepard is a phenomenally good writer, this ideas here are not very novel. I think I saw all of this in Jacob's Ladder back in 1990. And I am sure I have read tons of pulp stories about drugging soldiers in Vietnam. This story is lushly written, tightly plotted and very well executed, but in the end it is overtly formulaic and highly derivative. I recommend it though. Shepard is a great writer, even if he is his own greatest fan, and should not be missed. This story is an unconnected part of a larger tapestry of near-future war pieces set in Central America.

Copyright , 2008, by Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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