THE FEVER COAST LOG: At Sea in Central America by Gordon Chaplin (Simon & Schuster: $20; 229 pp.). We Americans are control freaks. Not only do we think that we can govern the world as its "last remaining superpower," we think we can take full existential command of our lives and march in a unique and perhaps even heroic direction. While this idealism can be inspiring in youth, however, it also can impose an extraordinary burden of failure on those who, upon reaching middle age, discover that the grand dreams they have been encouraged to pursue are likely to remain intangible. This is the burden weighing on the shoulders of writer Gordon Chaplin at the beginning of this subtle travelogue.
"I was the one who had been supposed to make (my mother) proud, to rescue her, and who was always disappointing," Chaplin confesses, citing his most recent disappointment: an "uninspired novel . . . filled with mean characters" and going nowhere. And so--believing, like most Americans, in "the tonic of movement"--Chaplin goes somewhere: to the antithesis of ambitious America, the "fever coast" of Central America, a region where heat wraps around you "like a rubber blanket," encouraging you to grab a \o7 cerveza\f7 and give in to the elements. Chaplin does not always succumb, trying to manhandle this text with transparent literary devices. But usually these pages are admirably forthright, allowing us to infer rich meanings of our own from his meanderings.