Finalist, Publishers’ Prize, Saskatchewan Book Awards, 1993
Nights in the Yungas
Saskatoon: Thistledown Press, 1992
Armed only with their passports, the gringos in these short stories enter the politically charged arenas of Nicaragua, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. As we ride buses with them, or listen in the dark of the war-torn Nicaraguan jungle, we understand both the compression and the enlargement of humanity caused by their travels.
Most of the protagonists in the eleven stories are gringos travelling or working in unstable Latin American countries like Nicaragua, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Colombia. What makes Henighan’s collection so rewarding is the vitality and versatility of his craft: the book opens with the well-wrought, conventionally modernist story “The Wind Off the Volcano” and ends with the three-page prose-poetry meditation “The Sun of Coricancha”; spread out along the continuum between these two extremes of story-as-tale and story-as-poem come pieces like “Nights in the Yungas,” structured like a brief and lilting piece of Peruvian music, and “North to South,” with the slow, cumulative movement and resonance of a novella.
All of the stories in Nights in the Yungas, Stephen Henighan’s new short-fiction collection, are set in Central and South America, and all have locales that are rendered with convincing detail….Henighan is a writer who respects his material and offers us close and convincing observation.
Well told, tightly structured and highly readable….The stories are refreshingly political, especially when they reflect the ideological contradictions of North American do-gooders in Nicaragua.
“My Last South American Story” is a literary gem. It turns on the duality of the main character, called Juan by the locals from whom he buys handicrafts, and John by the tourists “on the gringo trail” where he wholesales to small merchants. On New Year’s Eve, Juan/John, the narrator, squanders some money on a Peruvian Indian woman’s kawa, a weaving tool she decorated with two heads, one facing each way. The kawa symbolizes the narrator’s dilemma of whether to stay, or go home and finish his art history degree. He takes a wrong bus and becomes hopelessly lost far in the outback and is passed from bus to jeep to a barn-hotel by Indians and the militia, who want no part of a bad luck gringo. As hinted in the title, Henighan has saved much of his passion about South America for this story.
Though symbols, such as the “bog people” in “North to South” and the Janus-faced distaff in “My Last South American Story,” are skilfully handled, the stories’ resolution is achieved mainly in terms of action and character. They are all well crafted…. Henighan has a distinct talent for description; his stories are above all travel tales, regardless of the fictionality or otherwise of their protagonists.
Stephen Henighan’s Nights in the Yungas is jam-packed with wildly exotic locale and incidents that would exhaust a Hemingway hero, but many of his characters are so naive and Eurocentrically blinded that the opportunity of their travel is lost on them. And this is Henighan’s point.