In the 1994 military/political intervention in Haiti, Bob Shacochis spent some 18 months on the ground -- most often with U.S. Special Forces (Green Berets). At first thought, this relatively minor incident might seem an eccentric choice for the acclaimed fiction writer's first major work of reportage between hard covers, but The Immaculate Invasion, if perhaps 100 pages too long, gradually gains power as an unusually vivid, troubling look at human brutality, the limitations of military force, and an abiding despair less Haitian than central to the human condition.

In narrative terms, very little happens in The Immaculate Invasion even as various agencies cloud the air with acronyms. During a demonstration in support of the returning President Aristide, Shacochis is caught on the edge of massacre, while on another occasion, he is in danger of being killed by American soldiers; several cruel murders occur offstage.

As in his acclaimed short stories set in the Caribbean, Shacochis memorably evokes humid nights, lush foliage, lovely arcs of beach, terrifying rains and death-dealing floods.

But the main theme is American misreading or, possibly, intentional mishandling of dangerous local intrigues. In the familiar tradition of battlefield writing, the writer's sympathies lie with the common man -- in this case, the uncommonly well-trained, confident Green Berets. They are misunderstood and ill-supplied by the leaders of conventional American forces, officers frequently shown as arrogant martinets or dimwit careerists.

What most readers will admire in The Immaculate Invasion is not political analysis but novelistic evocation of people and events. Shacochis is at his best, his most valuable, when his rare gifts bring to life a myriad of individuals who know that existence is a dance with death.

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