by Timothy Lane
Richard Powell wasn’t a very well-known novelist in his day, although three of his books (including this one) were made into movies and this one was also selected as a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book (which is how I first came across it) about 45 years ago. It’s a comedy about a naïve young Peace Corps volunteer from Boston Brahmin stock, one Arthur Peabody Goodpasture, who gets sent to the small Caribbean republic of San Marco (which changes government in the usual Latin American manner, as Goodpasture will have opportunity to learn), best noted for its citizens’ remarkable talent for thievery.
One such native is a little street urchin named Pepe, who adeptly finds ways to rob Goodpasture even as he becomes his “trusted” assistant. Two others are the local dictator, El Toro, and his current aide, the opportunistic and ambitious Carlos Veleta (my favorite literary villain; my favorite TV villain is Miguelito Loveless). El Toro assumes that a peace corps must be a military corps trained to enforce peace, and since his citizens love plotting almost as much as stealing, he could use it. He soon discovers that Goodpasture isn’t what he hoped for, particularly when he doesn’t recognize the CIA (“Committee of International Amity?”). El Toro wonders if anyone could be so ignorant as not to know what the CIA is, and when Goodpasture realizes that he has indeed heard of it, Veleta sighs, “Yes, Generalissimo, it is possible.”
Goodpasture’s specialty is fruit farming, being a specialist in Dwarf Cavendish bananas as opposed to the standard Gros Michele (at the time, I didn’t know that these were actually varieties of bananas). So El Toro sends Goodpasture to work with Veleta (at the latter’s suggestion) to work on an abandoned hacienda. As it happens, the hacienda is located near where the latest rebel group (Los Descalzos, led by El Gavilan) operate – which is convenient, since Veleta’s actual intention is to kill Goodpasture, blame it on the rebels, and use that as leverage for US support (and, of course, his own promotion). But things go awry, and Goodpasture manages to escape – and find himself running into El Gavilan and his chief assistant, Eduardo (formerly a US advertising man).
Running into rebels is a high-risk activity, and Goodpasture (with Pepe, who had also been captured) finds himself repeatedly marked for death (though he naturally doesn’t always realize it). But he also finds himself useful (if nothing else, he’s better at finding food without stealing it from peasants than Los Descalzos – Goodpasture was also a Boy Scout, and learned quite a bit in his day). And somehow, when it’s all done, the new ruler isn’t Carlos Velete but El Gavilan – who actually is Goodpasture (they turn out to look a lot alike). But by now he’s learned his new country’s ways well – when a US representative is unsure if his list of foreign aid wants is worthy of consideration, Goodpasture asks him to reschedule his next meeting with a more senior US offiical – it seems he already had the Soviet representative scheduled for the same time.
Powell was an interesting writer, capable of delightful plots often well-seasoned with humor (though rarely as much as in this book). But he also came up with nice characters, and the villainous Carlos Veleta was one of the best. He’s a pure sociopath, always out to advance himself no matter what the cost to anyone else – but also totally without personal malice. Thus, no matter how many times his plots against Goodpasture fail to kill him, Veleta doesn’t care as long as he personally benefits. But in the end, he learns that honesty can be surprisingly difficult to overcome. • (2030 views)