The third story in Trujillo is the earliest published (F&SF 1999) and the first that I haven't read before. It takes us to Africa: to the Congo.

Central to the fairly conventional narrative is a complex quasi-friendship between Michael, an 'American Negro' (p108) and Rawley, a white African. The story begins with Michael receiving a call from Rawley; a request for help in a case that is causing him some trouble. There have been some murders in Bandundu Province, murders attributed to crocodile men. Nothing particularly unusual in that, given the climate of superstition and mysticism prevailing in the Congo ... except for the fact that one man, Gilbert Buma, has confessed. Rawley wants Michael to judge whether Buma is telling the truth.

So Michael travels to Mogado, leaving an unspectacular life behind him. He interrogates Buma, who offers typical trickster half-answers and evasions, and he meets Rawley, who seems more worn around the edges than Michael remembers him. He sees crocodiles, a strange gathering of more than a hundred, 'a great humping mass of gray-green scales and turreted eyes and dead-white mouths.' (p91) And a bartender tells him a story, a story about the dead, crazy dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and how his dying curse has poisoned all the waters, becoming a 'cancer spreading from the heart of the world.' (p106)

'Crocodile Rock' has many elements that I think of as quintissentially Shepardian: an exotic location, a sustained, almost hallucinatory vividness, a lingering sense of the primitive, an uncertainty as to whether the story's black madness is in the head or in the world. In fact, it is so typical that it almost becomes unremarkable; there's a temptation to believe that because Shepard makes it look so easy, he can do it without really trying.

That's unlikely to be true, of course, but it seems reasonable to judge a writer against the standards he has set for himself--and on that scale, 'Crocodile Rock' is good, but not great. I found the framing device, which creates deliberate uncertainty (the very first sentence is, 'You must not think of me as a reliable witness' (p77)), a little awkward. It preserves the enigma that is Michael and Rawley's friendship, but I was left wanting more in the wrong way; and too, it works against the immersive feeling that, for me, characterises Shepard's very best work.

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