Review – Thelwell, “The Harder They Come”

Michael Thelwell, “The Harder They Come” (1980) – A movie novelization praised by Chinua Achebe and Harold Bloom! Well, it makes sense. “The Harder They Come” is an awesome movie (watch it with subtitles), a classic tale of overcoming odds and dying to become a legend, and which helped introduce reggae to global audiences. Michael Thelwell is one of the original Black Studies guys, a civil rights movement veteran, and a friend/editor of Achebe. And as Thelwell points out in his introduction, he does not slavishly follow the plot of the film- among other things, the film runs at a brisk 109 minutes so it’d probably make for a short novel.

Thelwell starts us out in rural Jamaica in the mid-twentieth century. Ivanhoe Martin is a young boy who acquires the nickname “Rhygin” for his “raging” lust for life. He’s always willing to go farther than the other kids- work harder, swim further, jump off higher cliffs into deeper water. His grandmother wants him to follow in her footsteps, farming the green hillside land in a community descended from Maroon slave rebels. But you can’t keep them down on the farm once they’ve heard rocksteady, one of reggae’s progenitors. As a teenager, Ivan moved to Kingston, the big city, and encounters many classic “country bumpkin” pitfalls before starting to lead a dual life- good churchgoing boy, helping repair things around a Baptist compound by day, and “rude boy” by night, running the streets with a gang and watching endless westerns in the movie houses.

Ivan is what I’d (modestly) call “Berard-complete” – a fleshed out character (it was a real risk, too, to turn him into a kind of black Horatio Alger character, but Thelwell knew better) who also isn’t tediously psychologized. His knocks don’t all go into making him a better, stronger person. In particular, Thelwell presents the brutalities of all levels of Jamaican poverty — from wandering the streets of the rich neighborhoods begging for work only to be treated like pests, to the numerous ways the poor rip each other off just to survive, to Ivan getting ripped off by record producers after almost reaching his music stardom dreams recording the titular song — utterly unromantically. It doesn’t make you better. It just sucks.

Eventually, Ivan is hit hard enough he snaps. He cuts up a cruel overseer, gets whipped (Jamaica still used caning as a punishment at the time), and becomes a weed dealer. He gets in with some Rastafarians. The Rastas are a sort of otherworldly presence in the book. Ivan and his friends witness an attempt by Rastas to “take over” Kingston (this happened in real life). Rastas show up at odd points to show a way that black men can be true to themselves in the world. Ivan never becomes one — he loves the flash of the world too much — but they’re an important presence in the book. Eventually, the big fish Ivan works for betrays him and tries to have him killed. This allows Ivan to fully become Rhygin, as he goes on a massive crime spree that makes him a folk hero (and launches his record to the top of the charts). In the end, he’s gunned down by the cops on a beach, calling on them to “send out one man who can draw” so he can fight and die like his cowboy heroes.

It’s an interesting book, written partially in Jamaican patois (with helpful glossary). Thelwell makes good use of the contrasts of types of life- the simple rural life in the villages (which Ivan can’t return to, due to devastating changes while he’s away), life among the “sufferers” of Kingston, glimpses at the nice life lived by exploiters, the mystic experience of the Rastas. One thing I found interesting was the way in which Ivan, in the end, overcame by turning away from his humanity, in large part symbolized by women, especially his girlfriend Elsa who escaped the Baptist compound to be with him. It’s ambiguous whether Elsa betrays him to the police or not- it was either her, or the Rasta partner last seen being tortured by the cops. In any event, turning away from womanhood, with its softness and potential treachery, to finally become the “star-bwai” gunslinger… that seems to be a theme in a fair amount of lore, not unique to Jamaica but pretty common, in my experience, in Jamaican narratives, including reggae lyrics. In Rasta myth (and to a degree, practice) you don’t usually become a gunslinger star, but women very much belong in a separate, subordinate place while men take the “chalice” (weed pipe) and “reason” with each other. Remnant of colonialism, maybe, I’m no expert. Either way, an interesting book. ****’

Review – Thelwell, “The Harder They Come”

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