Review – James, “A Brief History of Seven Killings”

Marlon James, “A Brief History of Seven Killings” (2014) (read by various actors) – Jamaica! What a contrast between the image I was sold of it as a kid — the era of “Cool Runnings,” a movie I saw dozens of times and which held up relatively well when I saw it a few years back — and the complex, often harrowing realities one learns as an adult. I’ve never been and have no plans to go. I just mean that by and by, one learns it’s not paradise, that the people have complex and difficult lives, that one of the things it suffers from is the contrast between white desires/expectations and the universe of black thought and dreams that nation has generated itself… like Haiti, I guess, but there were never any heartwarming movies about a Haitian bobsled team.

Bob Marley plays an outsized role in the country’s tangled image (and image of self) – a transcendental figure in twentieth century music whose music, some of the purest pleasure you can find, both reflected and contrasted the mixture of grimness and beauty of his home, and his life. Did you know someone tried to assassinate him in his Kingston home in 1978? I didn’t, before I read this book! A novel that plays with history and journalism by a Jamaican writer who mixes literary and “genre” (this could be called crime fiction, and his latest is basically a fantasy novel), “A Brief History of Seven Killings” has a lot more than seven murders. Even if Marley avoided that fate (only to be killed not long after by a melanoma on a toe he refused to have amputated), the attempt on his life structures the action of the book.

This is a multiple-narrator novel, and different voice actors play the different narrators. Most of them start out as inhabitants of Kingston in the late seventies. Socialism and black revolution are in the air as the sort-of socialist Michael Manley is in office, but things are still stuff for most Jamaicans. Manley’s People’s National Party and the opposition Jamaica Labor Party (notice how nice and lefty both names sound! Different era) both strive for power by hiring gunmen in the various Kingston ghettos to deliver votes through corruption and violence, with emphasis on the latter. Wear the wrong color (drink the wrong beer! I’m told Heineken was the JLP beer and Red Stripe the PNP one) in the wrong neighborhood and bad things will happen.

Two of our narrator characters, Papa-Lo and Josie Wales, are JLP-aligned gunman chieftains. Papa-Lo, older and more paternalistic, starts sending out peace feelers to the PNP, in large part through Bob Marley, whose star is on the ascendant and who is only referred to as “The Singer” throughout the book. The young and hungry Josie Wales sees a path to power through keeping the violence going. Papa-Lo and the singer want to see Jamaica achieve real independence for its people and the instantiation of something like Rasta values (honestly a mixed bag but probably better than open kleptocracy) in power. Josie Wales aligns himself with outside powers — the Colombian cartels and the CIA — with other plans. He’s involved in the abortive Marley assassination, but survives the fall out by pretending loyalty to Papa-Lo and concentrating on making Jamaica a hub in the cocaine trade.

The coke trade and its consequences — all of them still tied in with Jamaican politics into the nineties — follow characters all the way to New York City. An ex-lover of Marley’s who fled to the city after witnessing the assassination attempt provides viewpoints into both Jamaican women’s labor minding very old and very young New Yorkers, and gets tied up when the crack wars invade her neighborhood. A journalist who started out writing about Marley for Rolling Stone and ends up writing about Jamaican “posses” and their propensity for ultraviolence — learned through ghetto brutalization, honed by CIA training and guns, accelerated by coke, its profits and its chemical effects — for the New Yorker has a harrowing experience with a new breed of gangster- slick, tied in to global capitalism.

All in all this was pretty good. A lot of characters, some sprawl, some visits from the ghost world that were good not great, crime, coke, the CIA, AIDS, sexism and homophobia, lots of interesting stuff. It probably could have been shorter, but hey, it covers a lot of time in the life of some interesting places. It presents something like the complexity of Jamaica and the way the dreams, nightmares, and realities of the place refract off of each other. One of the better contemporary literary reads I’ve read lately. ****

Review – James, “A Brief History of Seven Killings”

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