BEST NIGHTMARE ON EARTH: A Life in Haiti by Herbert Gold (Prentice Hall Press: $19.95; 220 pp.). Novelist Herbert Gold is driving through Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, when his car suddenly is blocked by a crowd joyously whirling, dancing and singing around a carnival band. The spontaneous celebration is business as usual on this island where "people fly like birds" and use voodoo to "send messages without wire or words." But when Gold translates the lyrics, it becomes apparent that the song is as bitter as it is sweet: "There is no reason for people to go hungry, no reason for children to die, no reason even for young and happy lovers to die."
Given their nation's history of poverty, corruption and violence, it's easy to fathom the Haitians' sorrow, but how to explain their exuberance? Mirroring the opinion of poet Derek Walcott toward his native West Indies, Gold speculates that "some innocence of hope survives" because of the tropical climate: "Because the air can be sweet in Kenscoff, or fragrant with charcoal smoke and flowers in the hillside neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, or salty and seaborne in Jacmel." Gold doesn't unravel all of the island's mysteries--there is no update on how the Haitians managed to uproot decades of military dictatorship in an election last December--but this is nevertheless travel writing of a high order, paralleling the author's own vulnerability with that of the land.