Life in the Damn Tropics
David Unger

NOVEL | 2002 | 280 pages

Set in strife-torn Guatemala City in the early 1980s, this sophisticated, quasi-comedic tale depicts the decline and near-fall of a prominent Guatemalan Jewish family. The Eltaleph family is accused of setting up a dummy corporation in Panama in order to avoid paying Guatemalan taxes. Hence, middle-aged Marcos Eltaleph, a playboy whose lust for life is matched only by his lust for women, has been placed under "hospital arrest." As older brother Aaron tries to obtain his release, Marcos ponders his scapegoat role in the family and the two-timing machinations of his new girlfriend, Esperanza, a fiery Colombian former prostitute who, in this hour of need, Marcos believes has taken up with his former business partner. In the face of military rule, terrorism, and sabotage Marcos learns the truth about his brother, only to find that sibling secrets can be every bit as dangerous as civil unrest.


Life in the Damn Tropics is a witty book, ebullient in its observations about the human heart and mind, and the caprices of destiny. It is a sharply intelligent, passionately written novel by a writer who has much to say about that Life in the Damn Tropics—something which the author knows well—a book that is deserving of an appreciative readership.
— Oscar Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love
Three Jewish brothers struggle to keep their family’s business ventures alive through a period of political unrest and upheaval in Unger’s satisfying debut novel, set in Guatemala in the early 1980s…Unger puts his unique setting to good use as he layers his unusual story line, building the suspense…that makes this book worth reading. Fans of political intrigue will enjoy this title which straddles literary and commercial fiction to good effect…
— Publishers Weekly
This is a sophisticated, often bitterly funny political-romance that made me think of Graham Greene. Through the eyes and voice of Unger’s more or less assimilated Jewish narrator, Guatemala City in the eighties—a place of terror, but also a place of family obligations and old friendships and mid-life love and loss—is beautifully evoked.
— Francisco Goldman, author of Say Her Name and The Art of Political Murder
Life in the Damn Tropics is often funny, always vibrant with its surreally intense characters. It is a great read, not only for the ironies and wry humor about the human condition, but also because it celebrates human diversity, even perversity, as a procreative force.
— Susan Smith Nash, World Literature Today
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