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Book Review : A Bloody Farce Set in Nicaragua, 1931

A Few Good Men by William Overgard (St. Martin’s Press: $18.95; 357 pages).

To have read his first book, “Shanghai Tango,” is--inevitably--to have become a rabid William Overgard fan. No one writes like Overgard, and it’s probably just as well, since too many silly puns, gruesome corpses, didactic history lessons, well thought-out ambushes, weird sex scenes and sliced-up brain pans could induce shell shock in the unsuspecting reader.

There is room in America for only one William Overgard--a man so cheerfully heartless, so fiercely intelligent, that he routinely takes an average blood bath, turns it into a bubble bath, then stills those bubbles--all that frivolous play reminds us of the swamp of dead bodies under a stiffening surface of what it all was in the first place: plain human blood.

American Intervention

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So! What’s the best place for his blood bath this time? Overgard picks Nicaragua, March, 1931. An Indian rebel named Augusto Cesar Sandino has finally taken offense at American intervention. He has griped that American Marines have been marching all over his country, and the United States, in turn, has taken offense at this pushy indio who wants his jungle for himself and for his people. . . .

Down to the Mosquito Coast comes a lone Marine, Lt. K. L. Magnusson, on special assignment; find this Sandino guy and kill him. But first Magnusson must be entertained by the American consul, a Richard Kelly, and his very lippy (and corpulent) 13-year-old daughter, Kate. Sandino is in the area, his every move being chronicled by Carleton Wills, an aristocratic East Coast journalist, who reminds everyone who will listen that he is an impartial observer, nothing more.

Well, wouldn’t you know it, an accident happens. Sandino and Wills are practically forced to kidnap Kate. They head inland, toward Managua. Down on the coast, an impromptu rescue party is formed--made up of the proverbial “few good men.” These include the redoubtable Lt. Magnusson--whose post-Marine ambition is to own a Buster Brown shoe store in San Diego--a Gen. Smedley D. Butler, a double Medal of Honor winner who has the Marine insignia tattooed from collar bone to waist on his white-haired chest, a nice bugler who goes by the name of Music, an Indian named Tomas, and a huge Packard car with a V-16 engine that will go through hell before all this is over.

A splendid, bloody farce is what this turns out to be. As Sandino and Wills struggle to haul the unconscious Kate through the jungle, the men collapse, “laughing like school boys.” Sandino opines, frivolously, “It’s like carrying a sackful of Hello!”. “Jell-O,” Wills corrects him. Later, when the Marine rescue party has been ambushed by the Sandino followers (in a house of assignation that has been converted into a fertilizer warehouse), Kelly, the consul, is horrified to see the Marines around him fixing their bayonets: “It never occurred to me,” Kelly says, “but using a bayonet means that a man trying to kill you would be less than two feet away.” Gen. Smedley is cheerful in his response: “That’s why it’s called hand-to-hand combat, Dick.”

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This novel has a cast of hundreds, most of whom get killed in the first 200 pages, during earthquakes, skirmishes and various brutal tortures. Sandino’s own personal butcher, Pedron, falls into the hands of a third whole faction--a skuzzy outfit out for personal gain under the dubious leadership of Tacho Somoza who exudes “the oily unction of a used-car salesman, which he had been.”

(And yes, boys and girls, this is the story of how Nicaragua fell under the rule of the awful Somoza family, and only 50 years later got it together enough to organize what we now call the Sandinistas, and wouldn’t you know it, Americans are still down there now!)

Somoza’s personal butcher, an idiot-savant who eats Wheaties with his fingers, takes a few paper-thin slices off of Pedron’s brain with his cuchete . Sandino is bombed and strafed by heroic Marine aviators. A lovely blond Norwegian whore, Somoza’s mistress, is socked in the jaw by Lt. Magnusson, and kidnaped in yet another daring rescue, to become the reigning chatelaine of the Buster Brown shoe store in downtown San Diego. Kate Kelly, the corpulent 13-year-old, loses weight and becomes a raving beauty. The entire city of Managua is destroyed in a killer quake. Everybody who doesn’t die or isn’t maimed has an absolutely marvelous time.

This is a great book, a splendidly funny book, and all the better because it carries the invisible epigraph: The next time you hear about Freedom Fighters or Our Boys in Nicaragua, remember, it’s a farce, just a goofy, bloody farce.

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