- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. (AP) - When two American journalists were beheaded in the last several weeks by Islamic State militants, Joe Gannon was saddened and horrified. But in another sense, he wasn’t that surprised, knowing full well the dangers that foreign correspondents can face in a war zone.

Gannon, of Northampton, had worked as a reporter in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s, covering civil war and human rights abuses that made international headlines. He’d had his own brush with danger: He was once arrested by the Salvadoran military, held as a suspected terrorist with his hands tied behind his back and interrogated at bayonet point.

“It was at about that point that I started thinking, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to come out of this (alive),’ ” he said during a recent interview in his home.

Gannon, 54, was eventually released without harm, and he’s long since left his reporting days behind; today he’s a middle school English teacher, and he’s worked in the film industry and taught English overseas. But he’s also recalled some of his experiences and the volatile era he covered in his debut novel, “Night of the Jaguar,” a thriller set in the aftermath of Nicaragua’s bloody civil war and the Sandinista government’s continued fight against the U.S.-backed “Contra” forces.

“Night of the Jaguar,” published by Minotaur Books, a division of St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan Publishers, has won early praise from critics for its tense atmospherics, dark humor, and sobering portrait of a country seared by war. Publisher’s Weekly calls it “riveting (and) action-packed,” while Kirkus Reviews writes, “Considering its level of mayhem, it’s remarkable that so few mystery writers have drawn on Nicaragua as a fictional setting. So Gannon’s dark, dense, tangled debut is doubly welcome.”

Gannon, a 1984 graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says he conceived of the novel, in a very broad sense, when he was working as a freelance reporter in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the late 1980s, writing stories for The Christian Science Monitor, the Toronto Globe & Mail and other publications.

But it wasn’t until more recent years, including the time he spent earning an MFA at Pine Manor College in Brookline, that the complete story began to emerge. He says his goal was to write a good story that drew on some of his experiences but would stand on its own as a work of fiction, while also offering a realistic portrait of Nicaragua and how it was shaped by poverty, civil war and its use as a proxy battlefield between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

“I wanted to show how people are changed by war,” said Gannon, who teaches English at Duggan Middle School in Springfield. “Ajax (the book’s main character) has fought in the civil war, he’s served with the revolutionary government, and he’s not the same person - he’s damaged, and he’s trying to come to terms with that … it’s not easy.”

“Night of the Jaguar” is set during the summer of 1986, seven years after Nicaraguan Sandinista revolutionaries have overthrown longtime dictator Anastasio Somoza (known in the book as “the Ogre”) and established a communist government. Since the early 1980s, that same government, the FSLN, has been battling right-wing counter-revolutionaries, the Contras, who with backing from the U.S. are trying to take back the country.

In Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, Ajax Montoya is grappling with a host of problems, some of them of his own making. A former hero in the Sandinista guerilla movement, Ajax is now a police captain and homicide investigator with a drinking problem and an ex-wife. Trying to stay sober, he’s haunted by visions, including a ghostly, eyeless face he sees outside his window at night. All the killing he had to do in the revolution plagues his dreams as well.

Ajax, who after the revolution served with the state security forces, has fallen out of favor with some in the government because of his role in the assassination of a Contra leader, Jorge Salazar. He suspects his new partner, Lt. Gladys Dario, has been assigned to spy on him by an old nemesis, Vladimir Malhora, head of state security; Malhora, Ajax believes, is looking for any excuse to fire him and complete his ruin.

Things become more complicated when Ajax and Gladys investigate a homicide in one of Managua’s poorest barrios. What appears at first to be a brutal robbery of a prosperous-looking man shows evidence instead of an execution by the Contras: knife thrusts to the heart and neck. Ajax probes the killing through seedy contacts; all of them are subsequently murdered in the same fashion.

As part of the investigation, Ajax enlists the help of an American journalist in Managua, Matthew Connelly, to make a dangerous journey into the mountains of north Nicaragua to make contact with Contra forces. He also meets Amelia Peck, the aide of a U.S. senator who’s on a “fact-finding” mission in the country to determine whether the Senate should approve additional aid to the Contras.

Ajax is increasingly attracted to Amelia, despite an initial comically bad encounter with her. Though that might seem something of a plot device, it gives Gannon a way to examine the political dynamics of the Nicarguan-U.S. relationship, as well as Ajax’s own feelings about the Gringos. It turns out he grew up partly in Los Angeles, when his father, a university professor, had been forced to flee Nicaragua during the Somoza regime.

As Ajax says to the U.S. senator, “Politics here is very simple. The world is divided into two hostile camps and the weak must choose.”

“Us or the Russians?”

“Yes. Two giants that stride the world, and if we don’t choose correctly, they will grind our bones.”

But are the Contras - and by extension their U.S. backers - really behind the string of murders? If not, who is? Ajax has to wonder if any of his old Sandinista leaders and comrades still have his back, or if he’s become a sacrificial pawn in a political and military chess game.

Gannon, who grew up southwest of Boston, earned his UMass degree in social thought and political economy; he also took journalism courses. After graduating in 1984, he landed a job in New York, editing copy for Inter Press Service, an international news agency. Reading stories sent in from all over the world, he got the yen to do overseas reporting himself, so he headed to Nicaragua in 1987, having learned some Spanish along the way.

He built up contacts and began to sell freelance stories, at first covering economic development, then later human rights issues and the Contras. But Gannon says he never really faced any danger in Nicaragua. It was in El Salvador in 1989, covering the last years of the country’s civil war, when he had a scary brush with Salvadoran military and police.

“When you’re in a war zone, the worst place to be is where territory changes hands,” he said. “That’s what happened to me.”

He’d spent an evening in a guerrilla encampment, interviewing the soldiers, but discovered in the morning they’d left. A Salvadoran military unit rolled in and took him prisoner; he says he was forced to disrobe at gunpoint by an officer who told him they were looking for an American “terrorist” with distinctive tattoos. Then he was transferred to a branch of the national police - one implicated in widespread human rights abuses, according to various accounts of the war.

Gannon was released later that day, but not before he’d been badly shaken up. “I wasn’t as isolated as the guys who were killed by ISIS,” he said, noting that U.S. government officials in El Salvador had become aware of his status and called for his release. “But I had really started to panic” before being freed.

Gannon’s not done with Nicaragua - at least from a storytelling perspective. He’s well into a sequel to “Night of the Jaguar” in which Ajax - a character he based partly on Omar Cabezas, a Nicaraguan writer and former Sandinista fighter - goes to rescue his partner, Lt. Dario, who’s been taken prisoner by the Contras.

And he says he’s also getting some key editorial help from his 11-year-old daughter, Valentina, who made some suggestions he incorporated in his first novel. “She’s been a big help,” he said.

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