Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Hardcover, 336 pages Pub October 21st 2014 by Spiegel & Grau ISBN13: 9780812994520

There is definitely something amiss with my view of crime. I read crime mysteries and police procedurals for pleasure, but reading about crime from the other side—innocence and guilt or suspects and law or the possibility that the criminal justice system can be wrong—makes me anxious and fretful. I don’t like crime. It seems like weakness.

What I have come to see is that crime can occur on either side of a prosecution or conviction: the accused can be guilty of weakness or legal counsel can be guilty of weakness. Both are crimes, but they are not always pursued with the same diligence. It is this travesty of justice that is so disturbing.

My judgment of ‘criminals’ had always been that they made a mistake, sometimes just a little mistake, but they should pay for their crime. If they killed someone, that was a big mistake, and those folks should also pay for their crime. I wasn’t going to worry about the death penalty since they didn’t. The world has too many huge problems to worry about the life of some murderer. One can make a mistake, one just has to pay for it. I trusted the system worked…that if the crime was really manslaughter or had some other mitigating circumstances, that the courts would battle it out. I was more concerned with justice for the victims of crime.

In a discussion over the death penalty with family, my mother mentioned that we couldn’t apply the death penalty anymore because sometimes the convictions are wrong. Mistakes are made. Bryan Stevenson shows us that sometimes it is not mistake, or ‘accident’ that an innocent black man, or child, is chosen to stand guilty for a crime committed. Sometimes it is malice and intentional prejudice that such things happen in the United States, not just in the past, but now. Today. In that case, if mistakes, accidents, or purposeful crimes are committed against the accused, we cannot use a death penalty, morally. End of conversation.

This book tells us some of Stevenson’s early cases, some he won, some he lost. Midway through his account of working on wrongful imprisonment cases in the south, Georgia and Alabama, he recounts in detail the release of a inmate on death-row for six years, Walter McMillan, on whose behalf he’d been working for at least two years. We are hungry for the details, how it played out, if McMillan got compensation, if anyone was held responsible for wrongful imprisonment. It’s a story that makes one angry and grateful, all at the same time.

Below please find a 30-minute TED talk by Bryan Stevenson that explains some of the things he’s learned since he began working with death-row inmates. This TED talk comes when he is in his early fifties. This book was written in 2014, two years later. He began working with the Southern Center for Human Rights in the summers from Harvard Law School when he was in his early twenties. That’s nearly thirty years working and learning all about wrongdoing on both sides of what we call a crime.


Let’s admit something here: Stevenson is an unusual man. He says in that TED talk that he learned that people are more than their crimes. That may be true, but I am not as forgiving as he is. How he got to that safe place in his head begins to sound like Mother Teresa among the lepers…helping those with the least resources among us. It occurs to me that he could not live if he didn’t forgive, with all that he has seen.

But he has looked at the criminal justice system as closely as anyone so we have to ask: Can capital punishment ever be fair? What is justice? He makes the point that incarceration has become an industry which can perpetuate racial injustice, and he makes an impassioned case for why we shouldn’t charge juveniles as adults.
”We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity….if we owned up to our weaknesses, our deficits, our biases, our fears…if we acknowledged our brokenness, we could no longer take pride in mass incarceration, in executing people, in our deliberate indifference to the most vulnerable.”
Justice is hard, like most things worth doing, but we have to try.
“The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent…”
Ah. So there it is. He makes his point.

The audio is read by the author, and published by Random House Audio. It is a good book to listen to, if one has time. It may be faster to read, but I found myself slowing down over some of his cases. It is difficult for me to focus on some of the horrible lives and terrible choices people make. It makes me feel a little hopeless, too, that we could get to this place. I believe we must not unjustly imprison people, but I am not willing to go so far as to say every crime requires my absolution. I don’t think Stevenson is asking that. What he does say is
”We’re trying to stop the death penalty…We’re trying to do something about prison conditions and excessive punishment. We want to free people who’ve been wrongly convicted. We want to end unfair sentences in criminal cases and stop racial bias in criminal justice. Were trying to help the poor and do something about indigent defense and the fact that people don't get the legal help they need. We’re trying to do help people who are mentally ill. We’re trying to stop them from putting children in adult jails and prisons. We’re trying to do something about poverty and the hopelessness that dominates poor communities. We want to see more diversity in decision-making roles in the justice system for racial justice. We’re trying to confront abuse of power by police and prosecutors…”
I agree with all that. If there wouldn’t be another criminal after we’ve addressed all the things we have neglected to do, I wouldn’t be sorry.

The oral arguments for the case Evan Miller v Alabama that Stevenson argued and won before the U.S. Supreme Court.



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Monday, February 13, 2017

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, translated by Anna Summers

Paperback, 176 pages Pub February 7th 2017 by Penguin Books ISBN13: 9780143129974

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya was born in Moscow in 1938. The Girl from the Metropol Hotel is a short memoir of the time after her twenty-seven-year-old mother finished university and returned to her grandparents' house after four years away to bring Ludmilla back to Moscow. Ludmilla was on the streets by then, having ‘escaped’ the poverty of her grandparents’ upbringing in Kuybyshev.

On the street in Kuybyshev, Petrushevskaya took cold-eyed account of what she could sell to earn enough money to eat. She sang, and recited poetry. After one particularly moving rendition of one of Gogol’s short stories, a weeping woman in a large empty apartment offered her a green cardigan, which she took, a little perplexed, and not especially grateful. She wore it every day.

Petrushevskaya is said by some to be one of Russia’s greatest living writers. I had never heard of her. I always have some confusion in my own head about a repressive regime and the awards it grants: do the things a regime praises have the same currency out of country? In this case, I believe so, as she has been living outside of Russia for decades. It is said that in Russia Petrushevskaya was blacklisted in the 70s, was published in the 80s, and awarded in the 90s.

I think the citizenry must make their decision, and whomever is read and praised among the citizenry is a good choice for longevity of reputation, particularly in Russia. Russians have a brilliant literary tradition, including important satiric writers who were long-suppressed. Russians know all about the importance of language and how it can move one.

The same way Petrushevskaya looked upon her chances as a child on the streets is the kind of voice she uses in this memoir. She is matter-of-fact and does not at all curry our sympathies for a cold and hungry childhood. Everyone she knew was the same. There was no feeling sorry, just being more clever, more lucky, more resilient. To live by one’s wits requires keen attention, which must be how her writer’s eye developed. Whatever had value in a certain scene is something worth remembering.

Petrushevskaya is also known as a playwright, and there is a bit of a playwright’s multiplicity of voice in her memoir as well. She is able to see points of view and where they diverge, defining conflict. She has been writing from Eastern Europe and America since the 1990’s, though she recently began composing new lyrics for songs she likes and is singing on a cabaret circuit, that sometimes includes major venues like Moscow House of Music, around Russia.

Three books of stories have received wide acclaim, and The New Yorker published three. Her stories are said to be known for a fairytale quality, urban legend, or perhaps dark reports from a mystical, allegorical fantasy world. The books titles might give readers some idea of her grim realism: There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Killed Himself: Love Stories, and There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby , and her latest to be translated, There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In.

Moments of real pathos in this memoir are written (and spoken in the audio version) with no pathos. Like anyone who has experienced the trauma of revolution or war, if one manages to survive, one often just gets on with it—with the business of living. Not another second will be spent wasted by looking back and stemming one’s forward progress with regret.

The audio was narrated by Kate Mulgrew, produced by Penguin Random House. Anna Summers did the translation and has written an Introduction which gives readers some background, in case, like me, you’d never heard of Petrushevskaya.

Below please find a short excerpt of Kate Mulgrew's reading of the memoir:


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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Couturier of Milan by Ian Hamilton (Ava Lee #9)

400 pages Published January 16th 2017 by House of Anansi Press

More than once I have called this series of books about a Chinese-born Canadian my guilty pleasure, but now I wonder why I should feel guilty. Ava Lee is a forensic accountant with deep ties to Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. For several books in the series she investigated improprieties in international trade and business deals, but then she invested her earnings in new businesses on the mainland as a venture capitalist. Anyone with even a cursory interest in how the world turns is gong to be fascinated by the mysteries revealed in this series.

Ava Lee is smart, savvy, sexy, and…a lesbian…which is no big deal when she is residing in Toronto. In China, however, that lifestyle choice is not appreciated, nor even permitted. At the end of this installment of the series, the author puts a little pressure on those restrictions and I expect we will just see how far they bend.

One of Ava’s investments is in a clothing designer trying to break into the European market. The designer attracts the attention of a major Italian luxury goods provider who doesn’t take kindly to the smallish company rejecting his takeover bid. Ava calls on her friends in the Triads to push back, and the Mafia becomes involved.

What’s so fascinating in this installment is the discussion about sourcing and supply for luxury goods. We must all have had our suspicions about how luxury goods makers were able to survive in the era of Chinese low-cost production and competition, and here we get a few details that might help us to figure out for ourselves how much of those expensive products are actually “Made in Italy,” or perhaps just assembled in Italy.

There is no doubt that shipping plays an enormous part in costs, both time and money, for the materials are often shipped in and [mostly] finished goods shipped out—across the world. Besides the enormous marketing efforts, quality of the scarce materials, plus the real design genius behind some of the products…all of these things add to cost, but a little deep dive into the metrics and the kinds of markups on these products sort of takes away our enthusiasm for these ‘luxury' products: luxury for whom?

Hamilton imagines for us a meeting between the Mafia and the Triads in Macau, that city of casinos, where residents, curiously, live in one the most densely populated areas on earth and yet have the world’s longest life expectancy. He discusses along the way the changes in Macau’s landscape when foreign concessionaires were finally allowed to build, making a kind of Vegas on steroids. Millions of gamblers leave $45 billion there a year, compared to a take of $6 billion a year in Las Vegas.

There is no bloodshed in this novel, but I have to admit I was expecting it every second once everyone arrived at the Italian restaurant on Macau to talk an unreasonable and profane billionaire magnate into moderating his expectations. That man did not fit the mold I was expecting for someone “with everything.” He seemed too disbelieving that anyone would refuse his incentives, and too rude when he finally got the message. There was something authentic missing in his characterization.

After all this time, after 9 episodes of Ava’s experiences, I am still trying to come to grips with author Ian Hamilton, and why he does not seem prurient when describing the sex life of a woman. First, Ava is pretty restrained, and in all that time has had only one fling…a one-night stand with a hotel manageress in Iceland. Second, Ava has had a steady girlfriend in Toronto whom she barely ever saw, from readers’ point of view. And thirdly, it occurs to me that maybe the male Hamilton has an easier time writing about a gorgeous sexy woman than he does a man. That’s a bit of a challenge for him.

All in all, I always enjoy reading about Ava’s next challenge, where she’s been, and what she ate. There have to be some advantages to making millions of dollars after all, and it is a lot easier (and I argue even more fun) to read about it than it is to actually go out and do it. It looks like she’s off to the Philippines in the next installment and I have to admit a little danger does my heart good. This novel was a little more talky than usual, but a lot happened in a couple days. It takes time to explain.

Recent reporting in the New York Times discusses the case of a Chinese-born Canadian billionaire banker who has been thought to have been abducted from Hong Kong, North Korean-style, and kept under some kind of arrest in mainland China. Apparently some Chinese officials are purchasing large shares in national power companies for their own enrichment, like what happened in Russia when the Soviet Union dissolved, and they don’t want their machinations known. I wouldn't mind seeing Hamilton wading into this criminal circus and political controversy, just for fun. Many thanks to author Hamilton, editor Yoon, and publisher Anasi for the high-class entertainment.



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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

To Name Those Lost by Rohan Wilson

Paperback, 240 pages Expected publication: February 7th 2017 by Europa Editions Orig Title To Name Those Lost ISBN13: 9781609453497

Australian novelist Rohan Wilson came roaring out of the starting block with his first novel, The Roving Party , published in 2011 in Australia, and in 2014 by Soho Press for the U.S. market. That first novel described the hunt for aboriginals still residing in Tasmania, Australia’s southernmost island state. In the 19th Century, white European settlers began to capture and eliminate to extinction the native black aborigines in Tasmania, calling this period The Black War. The Roving Party reimagines this period using real historical figures and accounts. The book was shortlisted or won several national and regional awards.

The main character in Wilson’s second novel, Thomas Toosey, was once a member of one of those roving bands, though what he learned in service was that blacks were residents there first, and that a knife is a powerful inducement. Toosey remembers his own family with longing, even though his wife sold his alcoholic self down the river for a few quid more than ten years previously. Living rough in Deloraine after leaving the convict town of Port Arthur, he learns via desperate letter from his son William that his wife has died.

The journey to Launceston and the search for his son, who has been living on the street since the death of his mother, reads like a fever dream: very visual, very sweaty, very terrifying. We are aghast to find Toosey has stolen banknotes from his friend Flynn, and caused a terrible accident to befall Flynn's daughter. Toosey had been looking for enough cash to start a new life away from Tasmania with his son.

Wilson’s special skill is making history come alive; he sets his personal drama within the context of an 1874 railroad protest in Launceston. He makes it epic: characters struggle with life or death, right or wrong, him or me, now or never, as though they ever had any agency and they were not just playthings for the gods. There are so many watchers and witnesses in this novel, they take on the character of a chorus in a Greek tragedy or a Shakespearean meme, able to shift the action minutely. Street urchins, hobos and tramps, hotel workers, cops—many folks are watching this personal struggle play out: Thomas Toosey seeking son William, trailed by revenge-seeking Flynn, in the middle of a city gone berserk.

The opening lines of this novel are visual enough to describe a film, or a manga comic.
"Her head hit the floorboard, bounced, and a fog of ash billowed, thrown so by the motion of her spade."
This is William’s mother falling down near-dead from a standing position while sweeping the grate. Her son, William, races in shortly after with a growler of stolen brewery beer to give her, only to discover he needs a doctor instead. Racing away to find a doctor, William is waylaid by a cop who wants to put the twelve-year-old away for the brewery theft.

Right here, right at the start of this novel, we can feel the tension Wilson sets up for us between a grisly realism and an absurd, immovable, buffoonish cop whose comic deafness derails the child’s plans and kills the mother. The rest of the book follows from this cruel dichotomy: absurd life, spectacular death, and the struggle between them. It almost seems if anyone stopped to think for just a second about what they were struggling for, the fight would go out of them, a legitimate philosophical stance and an accurate way to observe the human condition.
"History is the art by which we lead our lives."
Once again Wilson has taken a historical moment in Tasmania, looked deeply into its components, and the whole thing bursts into life—into flame, as it were. We reimagine convict life in Port Arthur, the muddy streets of Deloraine, the bustle and insincerity of worldly Launceston…and real moral conundrum. Wilson has one of the ‘orphans’ stand in the shadows, observing the action, knowing more about motivations and outcomes than the combatants engaged in life or death struggle. That orphan can change everything. Will she?
"There is as much ruin comes from love as virtue…Do not follow that fool into his hole. He wanted more for you. You need to want more for yourself."
Wilson won another award for this novel, the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction. Definitely worthy of attention, his work is big: it encompasses large, important themes, and at the same time, is completely unique.



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Sunday, February 5, 2017

The One Inside by Sam Shepard

Hardcover, 192 pages Expected pub: February 7th 2017 by Knopf Publishing Group ISBN13: 9780451494580

This gorgeously-conceived and -written memoir is simply delicious to hear. Bill Pullman reads it, sounding so much like Shepard’s remembered craggy, crusty voice crossing the ranges of a human heart on its journey from teen to seventy years. He is sly, self-serving, and somehow sincere, still sexy, selective, remembering his father’s young mistress, confusing us and himself about when he eventually becomes his father (now “one year older than his father was when he died”) and when any indiscretions become his own.
"…forty years of movie sets….a great blue heron waiting for a frog to rise… the wind moans through the aspens…and Nabokov says the reason he writes is ‘aesthetic bliss’…"
Patti Smith, Shepard’s long time friend and one-time lover, writes the Foreword and she claims the memoir is both “him, sort of him, and not him at all,” containing “altered perspectives, lucid memory, and hallucinatory impressions.” Reading it, we think we know what might be real and what will always be desire. He is a man of a certain age, one foot in the grave and one hand on his genitals; his descriptions of the twenty-something wearing a pink frilly skirt, sitting straight up, knees together, her spine not touching the back of the chair, recall to us hunger, sharp smells, flavor, and oh yes, something the old man had never forgotten….his first lover, the red-haired Felicity, his father’s fourteen-year-old lover.

Nabokov is heralded at the beginning, and his fantastic mental contortions are mirrored throughout the naughty little remembrance of an old man romancing a pretty young thing adrift, his Blackmail Girl. She is not as young as his father’s jailbait and he is older than his father but still working in film. Descriptions of what the production team does to ‘authenticate’ a film in production is impressive and maybe even wasteful and unnecessary. Extravagant, certainly. It is absorbing to hear the details interspersed with his little problem—pretending the little miss accompanying him is friend rather than prey.
"[Feelings about her] were like warm water running down my back."
Comfortable, pleasurable, and maybe not so dangerous. Certainly not wrong. Well, maybe…was it wrong?…what about Felicity? Felicity, we see at the end, was clearly too young. Shepard recalls the name of one of the world’s great prose stylists, Heinrich von Kleist, who is known also for his double suicide in 1811 with a married female friend who was dying of uterine cancer, so she wouldn’t have to die alone.

This book details the metamorphosis of a man, once a boy who, like Felicity, was too young, innocent, shocked by what his body wants and what his mind does, not grousing, not explaining, just writing…describing life through language, lush, foxy, exact, observant…just look, he says, just…listen.
"Who knows what is real anyway?"
We chart, as Patti Smith suggests, the “shifting core of the narrator,” from boy to man, from uncertainty to awareness, from innocence to culpability. He was always “confused and amused by women” but in senescence seeks to grasp a moment, a feeling, a memory. Literature, language, and its portrayal in film or on stage, has been his work for forty years. He may be winding down, but this he can still do: write with clarity, dreams or memories or lies or wishes or denials. This may be a memoir, but who’s to say the memories of an old man aren’t half fiction?

I loved this work. Shepard always read a lot of books but famous writers like Mailer, Capote, or Nabokov confused him. Shepard knew what was important, and stashed language like memory, in red naugahyde suitcases, ready to be pulled out in wonderment years later, and used to describe this world of his, or ours. He may be an ordinary man (who knows?), but he has extraordinary skill. This is a special, wonderful, joyful, ugly, painful look at our past century, a western landscape, and a man in it.
“Good enough for a book.”
I listened to the Penguin Random House production of this memoir, read by Bill Pullman. Check out the portion excerpted below:





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Why I Am Not A Feminist by Jessa Crispin

Paperback, 240 pgs Pub February 2017 by Melville House Original Title Why I Am Not a Feminist ISBN13: 9781612196015

Jessa Crispin sets out to discomfit us. She is so antagonistic to begin I almost put the audiobook aside. The author reads it, and there is a sarcasm and spite to her voice that I long ago decided I would rather avoid. Yes, she’s angry. But she made me curious. How and why could she push my buttons and why was she bothering? I started again the next day and her arguments sounded different the second time around. I agreed with her.

Essentially Crispin is saying that the feminist movement has been popularized, co-opted, and dumbed down to the point that folks have forgotten that feminism is nothing less than tearing down patriarchy, and any paternalistic system that “grants” rights to a certain segment of society while denying those same rights to others. Feminism means upending expected and accepted ways of exploitation of any group, race, religion, class.

Feminism is not measured by how many female CEOs are making 70, 80, 90, or 100 percent of what males do in similarly-structured companies where the top 1 percent is making over 1000 times what the lowest paid worker is making. Feminism exposes structures which make such disparities and discrimination possible.

Now do you see why it should make you uncomfortable? Feminism overthrows current methods and modes of interaction, in our financial, social, and relational interactions. Men and women, Crispin suggests, will struggle to understand and honor feminism's new goals and intentions and how they work, and therefore should not be criticized if they question, stumble or misinterpret on the way to building new social structures. It is important to listen and think about and answer disagreement within a movement.

Here Crispin sounds Maoist (and we know how that turned out), but at base I think she is saying something important: feminism is the original inclusive movement because everyone’s roles and interactions change for the better—except those who have been advantaged by exploitation of groups not their own to achieve outsized power and influence which they wield to keep their position at the top of some figurative ‘heap.’ That will be over, as far as feminists have anything to say about it.

Most appreciated is the way Crispin draws a line from inclusiveness to saving our planet: we are going to need the talents and skills of every dispossessed group to add to the general creativity. As long as people are encouraged and advantaged when they exploit others for personal gain and at the expense of the general welfare of the entire society, we are not going to succeed in the challenges that are coming.

Jessa Crispin is one of the original online unaffiliated book reviewers; she called her site Bookslut. There always was some aggression in her presentation, and I found her reading and writing difficult to understand, for the most part. Since then I recognize that she was reading and writing to learn, rather than merely for pleasure, and I have begun to do the same. I understand her better now. I recently reviewed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists which I liked very much. Adichie’s manner is so friendly, at first I thought she was saying that one does not have to be angry to be a feminist. But in fact, Adichie is angry: feminists should be angry, because we are not there yet. Some women have progressed; the world lags behind.

Crispin tells us that some of us have not bothered to look at the second wave of the feminist goals because some of us have gotten some personal gain and we have chosen what we want out of feminism's goals. Crispin reminds us that white female empowerment in the United States can actually be shown to be oppressive to less advantaged women overseas, by reason of feminists not completing the revolution as it were, but stopping when they have attained some measure of gain. First world women might be said to have bought into an oppressive, exploitative patriarchal system when it began to include them.

Just hearing the chapter heading “How Feminism Ended Up Doing Patriarchy’s Work” sounds exactly right. If one has enough money, one can avoid the worst effects of patriarchal control, and more and more women are stopping when we get to this point. But if we stopped and took a breath at this stage, we have to buckle on a breastplate and dive back into the fight. It is not men we are fighting. It is power and money which allows us to avoid the most pernicious effects of patriarchy and capitalism. Money and power feels good. When we get it, we don't want to carry on fighting.

So, Crispin wants to insert herself into everyone’s discussion about What Feminism Is. Feminism does not argue about who shaves and who is on top during sex. The powerless cannot, and the powerful will not, break the system. People, not just women, with both understanding and an unwillingness to buy into the system are the ones who can crush an oppressive system. She is broadening the limits of the term. “Women should think of themselves as humans first.”

In the end, Crispin's persistence in explaining why she is no longer a feminist is a serious and much-needed look in the mirror and not merely caustic and dismissive. It’s a call to arms. She’s tough: she has broadened and expanded and exploded definitions and reminded us of earlier radical feminists who are now dismissed or discredited. We might need a new word: Feminism is now ‘old hat,’ and she has moved on. I get it, and I'm with her.

I ended up really appreciating the PRH audio production read by the author, her intense and pointed criticisms aimed at feminists and power-mongers and unconscious beneficiaries of the current patriarchal capitalist system which has been so severely skewed to benefit a group not trying hard enough to dismantle the system which keeps them comfortable at the expense of others. To write a response to the manifesto, it would be useful to have a written copy. She brings up a lot of complex ideas and I guarantee you will not be completely comfortable with her critical eye and tongue. But she wades in where no man fears to tread. Bravo!

Couple of interviews with Jessa Crispin:

Constance Grady in Vox with Crispin May 3, 2016
Michelle Dean in The Guardian with Crispin May 9, 2016



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Monday, January 30, 2017

John Crow's Devil by Marlon James

Hardcover, 226 pages Pub September 1st 2005 by Akashic Books Original Title John Crow's Devil ISBN13: 9781888451825

Religion, corruption, promiscuity, sodomy, violence, bloodshed, humor, terror, betrayal, redemption, salvation. These are the subjects of Marlon James’ work, particularly this debut novel about a town in Jamaica in the midst of a preacher war. Go no further if reading about these things will affect your judgment of what is art and what is not. We all have our limits, and James is happy to play right to the edge.

There is no Table of Contents in this novel, and midway through, we may find we need a roadmap. Where is James going, and how did we get here? That is when I noticed he began this book, before Part I, with “The End,” three pages which confused and frightened and warned us what was to come. A “murder of crows” hangs around the yard of one Widow Greenfield until one day she discovers many of them lifeless and bloody on the grass in front of her house.

When author Kaylie Jones was contacted twenty minutes after Marlon James won the International Man Booker Prize for Literature in 2015 for A Brief History of Seven Killings , she said that acceptance and affirmation for him was a long time coming. Jones is credited with “discovering” James, passing his first manuscript for John Crow’s Devil on to an agent and an editor back in 2003. She was sure of James’ talent from that first time they met. “His writing was so confident. There was not one word that wasn’t precise. That voice was already there.”

The manuscript that eventually became John Crow’s Devil had famously been rejected 78 times before Ms. Jones saw his potential. James was 35 years old when it was finally published in 2005, his first novel. That means James was in his twenties when he wrote it, and this is the thing that slays: a twenty-something with shuttercock eyes writing sentences like
"Her mother was on the dresser, her sweaty back greasing the mirror as the man rammed inside her. Lucinda imagined his cock as stubby as he was plunging in and out of her mother’s vagina that was as loose as she was. Then he shifted and she saw it for a second, his penis disappearing into her mother and his jerky balls bouncing like elastic."
There is more than a little aggression in that passage, and an exactitude one isn’t expecting. But the whole book has this level of keen observation and imagination, speaking of forbidden things, blasphemies, and essentially…reporting, judging, laughing. Some of the horror and anger and judgment manifest are probably even nonfiction.

Two preachers fight one another over the ‘godly’ leadership of a town. One man is an alcoholic, and the other appears possessed. Both of them struggle with sexual temptations; neither fits any usual definition of godly, or good men. The townspeople, filled with the superstitions of their culture as well as warm natures mixed with hard-eyed realism, carol an absurdist relief, making comment upon one another’s needs, or sometimes jettisoning their good sense altogether under religious influence.

In an interview, James tells Charlie Rose that at this time in Jamaica he hadn’t yet publicly acknowledged his homosexuality but considered himself “Christian celibate…and believing it.” Only when he subsequently moved to St. Paul, Minnesota to teach writing, and when he was forty-four years old, did he acknowledge his sexuality. There is a lot, a whole lot, of explicit language and description of sexual acts, only some consensual, in James’ novels, but he appears to capture something that we recognize as real, even if we prefer not to look at it. “Violence should be violent,” he tells us, “Sexuality should risk the pornographic. It’s a fine line.”

Marlon James writes conversation in dialect, perhaps one reason his first book was not accepted immediately. Now, of course, dialect seems the most basic effort one can make to represent a culture. But James also manages the difficult feat of keeping readers unsure if they know what exactly is happening without them losing the thread altogether, or giving up. His storytelling definitely leads readers in the direction of some kind of reckoning for evil, thoughtless, or uncaring behaviors, no matter what the preachers, with their contrasting styles, have to say. The murder of crows and the flight of doves are both menacing, and vengeful. But the ending, in a two-page chapter called “The Beginning,” is reassuring. This novel feels brave, unflinching, and new.

And if you are still unconvinced about James' creativity, read this about his new project and then tell me he isn't looking deeply into the myths we tell ourselves, and exposing all.



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