cover image Panama: An Historical Novel

Panama: An Historical Novel

Bill Boyd, Author Capital Books (VA) $21.95 (196p) ISBN 978-1-892123-15-2

The U.S. hand-off of the Panama Canal on December 31, 1999, evidently drives the timely publication of Panamanian-born Boyd's (The Gentleman Infantryman) limping historical novel about the realpolitik of the canal's construction. Boyd's patrician hero, George Roosevelt Phillips II, after surviving the Spanish-American War with his uncle Teddy, finds himself posted to Nicaragua. Since the war, the United States has become convinced that a transoceanic canal is necessary for American military readiness, and George is involved in the surveying efforts. Seen through George's eyes, the history of the canal's construction provides a ready-made plot, complete with political intrigue and sudden reversals, from the contest between the lobbyists for Nicaragua and the then-Colombian province of Panama, through the negotiations with the French for their abandoned site and the creation of the Panamanian Republic, to the arduous engineering of the canal itself. Unfortunately, the historical events only show up Boyd's stiff fictional characters, one-dimensional historical figures and howlingly bad dialogue (""`Just think, Larry, George is a nephew of the president! Wow! He's a real gentleman, isn't he, Larry?'""). In a particularly unlikely sequence of events, George meets his future wife on the same day he discovers that his childhood sweetheart eloped with a horse thief and was subsequently shot to death. The novel's last third, covering the years from 1914 to the present, moves at a steady clip and stars George's son, William, who describes U.S. tenure over the canal from a diplomat's vantage point. For all Boyd's familiarity with Panamanian history, Panama reads like a misconceived footnote to Gore Vidal's fiction of the American empire's evolution, overlaid with the cloying sensibilities of a romantic novel. (Dec.)