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.