Unless you have a taste for graphic depictions of necrophilia, you will never feel totally at ease reading Captain of the Sleepers in public. (“She was naked, perfumed and dry, totally dry, and I’d bet not as cold as and much less rigid than anyone would have suspected,” begins the offender’s tender recollection of the act.) Which will complicate things a bit, because the novel–the seventh by Cuban-born author Mayra Montero–is too engrossing to put down just to avoid inquisitive glances.

While this marks Montero’s first foray into postmortem sex, both her fiction and nonfiction have always engaged deeply with life’s darker passions. As a journalist in Puerto Rico (to which her family immigrated in the 1960s and where she has lived ever since), she covered the bloody coup d’états and revolutions in Central America and the Caribbean throughout the 1970s and ’80s. Montero’s first novel, The Braid of the Lovely Moon, published in 1987 and named a finalist for the prestigious Premio Herralde prize, delved into voodoo and the overthrow of Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. And the work for which she is best known, her erotic fiction–notably the novels The Last Night I Spent With You and Deep Purple–typically uses lust to explore, in the author’s words, “anguish about death.” Captain of the Sleepers is no departure from that tradition.

The semi-naked stud soaking in the sun on the book’s jacket is Andrés Yasín, the boy whose coming of age the novel chronicles and from whose perspective it is largely told. Andrés, however, is hardly in sunbathing shape when we first meet him. A 62-year-old “pale, flabby, totally bald old man,” he opens the novel’s prologue with a mutter: “I’m in the last place on earth I’d like to be.” Andrés, agitated and anxious, is waiting in the bar of a St. Croix hotel for J.T. Bunker, a retired American pilot also known as the Captain of the Sleepers. The two haven’t seen each other for fifty years, but this isn’t a happy reunion: The Captain, 83 and dying of cancer, has summoned Andrés to St. Croix to explain, if not confess to, the offense he committed long ago against Andrés’s late mother, for which the son swore he’d murder the Captain if he ever saw him again. Bunker arrives, and the two men–equally miserable, equally stirred to be in the other’s presence again–begin a verbal dance around the crime, exquisitely choreographed by Montero with turns of rage, pity and sorrow. Andrés, whose glaring contempt for Bunker is punctured by curious pangs of admiration (“a fearless redhead…is what the Captain was”), just wants the “dying reprobate” to admit to his wrongdoing. Bunker won’t oblige: “I can explain what you saw,” he maintains, never denying the act but insisting that Andrés has misconstrued it. By cutting back and forth between Andrés’s memories and italicized rejoinders in which the Captain offers his own recollection of the events, Montero homes in on the novel’s central question: not whether a violation occurred but what stake each man has in clinging to his own interpretation of it.

To answer this question, Montero spirits us back to Andrés’s childhood on Vieques, the Caribbean island just off the coast of mainland Puerto Rico. For a novel with violation at its core, it is hard to imagine a more appropriate setting. Until two years ago Vieques was occupied by the US Navy, which used the island and its surrounding waters as a bombing range–a testing ground for the weapons of war, including napalm and depleted uranium. Not long after the Navy took over three-quarters of Vieques in 1941, displacing half the population, the US government decided its security demanded that all of Vieques be made available for military use. The island’s residents were to be “transported and resettled” on St. Croix, where the government, with a flourish of American ingenuity, decided they could work for a struggling US-owned rum company that Congress had long been burdened with subsidizing. Puerto Rico’s American-appointed governor gave the plan his blessing.

The transfer (proposed in a 1947 US government memo that would become infamous among critics of the Navy’s occupation) never took place, and most of Vieques’s 15,000 residents stayed put. But the Navy and its activities penetrated nearly every aspect of life. This is the world–Vieques nearly one decade into the Navy’s occupation–in which Montero sets the retrospective chapters of Captain of the Sleepers. In doing so, she achieves a rare thing: crystallizing the bitter history of the relations among the United States, mainland Puerto Rico and Vieques without resorting to polemics. She doesn’t need to, as she nimbly reveals the indignity and injury embedded in that relationship–with the aid of Edith Grossman’s characteristically fluid translation–through tone and characters that are symbolic but not simplistic. The Captain, a self-described “dissolute gringo,” is linked with the Navy (and, more broadly, with US imperialism) from the beginning. Montero introduces him as the son of the man who recommended the acquisition of St. Croix to President Wilson, and she has him enter the Yasín family’s life at the same time as the Navy does–in 1941, when Bunker transports to Vieques an American reporter covering the military’s acquisition of the island and takes up residence at the hotel run by Andrés’s parents, Frank and Estela. Bunker becomes something of a permanent guest on Vieques, befriending Frank, falling in love with Estela and developing a quasi-paternal relationship with little Andrés–becoming, not unlike the country he represents, at once a patron and a usurper, both welcomed and resented by his hosts.

In the first chapter of Captain of the Sleepers, it’s Christmas Eve of 1949, and all is not well with the Yasín family: For starters, there’s a corpse in the house. The Captain has shown up for dinner with one of his “sleepers”–the euphemism given, for Andrés’s benefit, to the dead people Bunker transports for a living from St. Croix to Vieques, where they once lived (pre-Navy, by implication) and wished to be buried. The adults are tense, ostensibly because the dead man’s family hasn’t come to collect the body (later, one of Bunker’s interpolations will add a new dimension to the scene). Andrés, however, is indifferent to the corpse, having only one person on his mind:

My mouth was dry. Perhaps I turned a little pale. My mother must have thought I was shaken by the fact that a dead man would spend the night with us. But I hadn’t even stopped to think about that. My dry mouth was due to her mouth–livid, as if it were bloodless–and my fearful eyes were due to her eyes.

Estela preoccupies Andrés most of the time, both in his childhood and during his present-day confrontation with the Captain. Montero’s deft portrait of Andrés’s Oedipal attachment is reminiscent of Henry Roth’s depiction of David and Genya Schearl in the masterful Call It Sleep. Like Roth’s David, Andrés is a mama’s boy–an unusually sensitive kid who seeks refuge from his fears in his mother’s arms. His fears are anything but irrational: Like David, Andrés inhabits a world of constant terror. By 1949 life in Vieques has assumed the shape of a nightmare: The ocean routinely spews forth dead fish and mangled turtles after the Navy’s maneuvers, and the island is overrun with the walking corpses of the “dispossessed”–those the Navy kicked out of their homes and herded into camps, leaving them, in Montero’s memorable phrase, to become “aware of their bones.” And just as David undergoes a painful coming to consciousness about the primary source of terror in his life–his father–Andrés begins to see the Navy less as a purveyor of cool war play than as a toxic presence on the island. The bombardments Andrés once anticipated with excitement become instead a source of dread–a feeling that, inevitably, makes him long for his mother:

Sometimes, for hours on end, a deathly silence fell, a viscous stillness that would stick to our souls and that we endured as we thought about the next explosion, which might not be heard right away. Hours or days could go by, and then, when we least expected it, the ground would shake; first it would shake and then we’d hear the blast. All morning at school I was thinking about Mamá without thinking anything concrete: I simply saw her and heard her voice saying unimportant words.

But even mama’s boys have to leave the enchanted womb. In Call It Sleep Roth loosens Genya’s grip on David by plunging him into the world of the Lower East Side, where New York-ese supplants Yiddish, his mother tongue. In Captain of the Sleepers it’s not language that comes between Andrés and Estela but sex. It isn’t, however, sex of the steamy, seductive, tumbling-in-the-sand variety. For such an erotically charged novel, Captain of the Sleepers has relatively little lovemaking–although there is plenty of getting fucked, literally and metaphorically.

Sex and violation are coupled from the novel’s first erotic scene, in which Andrés accompanies his father to drop off the hotel’s laundry at the home of the local washerwoman. Thinking he hears the moan of an animal, Andrés stumbles into a shed where the woman’s daughter, Santa, is writhing beneath the body of a marine. The eagle tattoo on the marine’s shoulder attracts Andrés’s attention, as does the dollar bill he flings to the floor when he’s finished with Santa. To keep Andrés quiet about the marine, Santa lets him touch her, but soon enough Andrés wants more, “wanted to do the same thing the Marine did, to get on top of her.” And so goes Andrés’s sexual initiation–the mimicking of a marine’s manhandling of a local girl and the beginning of his mistrust of his mother, whom he seeks out after it’s over only to discover that she has mysteriously disappeared. As the Captain reveals to Andrés fifty years later in St. Croix, it turns out that the young man wasn’t the only one in the family with a secret sex life.

As Estela grows increasingly distant from Andrés, Santa becomes the woman in his world until she, too, is taken away–raped, tortured and murdered at the hands of American officers. Though the killing of Santa is predictable enough from the moment she appears in Captain of the Sleepers, the episode reveals one of the novel’s great strengths: Montero’s ability to convey how people viscerally experience the depredations of colonialism. Santa’s death occurs just as Vieques begins to swell with soldiers training for the Korean War. As the Navy intensifies its maneuvers, a sense of claustrophobia pervades the novel, and the characters undergo a suffocation: “With the blanket of dead fish,” Andrés recalls, “came the stink that saturated everything…. My mother fanned herself and complained that the foul smell took her breath away.” On the night of Santa’s funeral, Andrés’s entire body is given over to suffering–which he begins to realize is not just a consequence of Santa’s death but of the larger assault by the Navy on Vieques:

I tossed and turned the whole night, and for the first time in many years, at dawn I wet the bed…. Planes flew over the hotel, and in a few minutes the bombardment began. That’s how I knew the maneuvers were returning to dry land. Suddenly I thought of Santa, and my soul shriveled because I was never going to see her again. I squeezed my eyes shut, and when they were shut I had a premonition that the first dead fish were approaching the shore.

Others in the novel, of course, make that connection long before Andrés does. Frank, Andrés’s father, is involved with a band of nationalists plotting an armed insurrection against Puerto Rico’s governor, who is about to sign a Constitution that would cement Puerto Rico’s subjugation to the United States and, by extension, prolong the Navy’s occupation of Vieques. Estela is involved with one of her husband’s comrades. The Captain is meddling in both affairs, aiding the former and, as Estela’s jilted ex-lover, trying to thwart the latter. As the action of the book marches toward the uprising, we know that we are also approaching both Estela’s death and Bunker’s transgression. The novel’s last sections alternate between Andrés’s and the Captain’s versions of these events, which include a sex scene so macabre and disturbing that readers are advised to save it for the privacy of their own homes. In their recounting of these incidents, the perspectives of Andrés and the Captain compete but don’t necessarily contradict each other: Montero leaves it to us to decide who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s misremembering the past and who’s getting screwed. It is telling, however, that when the Captain and Andrés part ways in St. Croix at the novel’s conclusion, only one of them leaves satisfied. The other, like the island of his birth, is left to reckon with the mess of the past.