Wednesday, February 11, 2015

JOHN CROW'S DEVIL by Marlon James


"Come now, church, who is ready to be violent for the Lord?"
There's something about organized religion that can be really terrifying at times, with the way it can feed on fear and trump all logic and decency. This is illustrated to the nth degree in the unsettling debut novel by rising star Marlon James. The book tracks the downfall and destruction of the small Jamaican village of Gibbeah, in the wake of a religious battle between two evangelical preachers for the control of both the Holy Sepulchral Full Gospel Church of St. Thomas Apostolic as well as the very soul of Gibbeah. It all starts on the day that Hector Bligh (the "Rum Preacher"), a drunk priest who's lost his way, is kicked out of the church by a charismatic new arrival, a fire-and-brimstone preacher calling himself Apostle York, who has intentions to purify Gibbeah, even if it means Old Testament judgement. 
The Pastor now drank day and night. He was spiraling downward and would have taken the village with him were it not for the other, who lead them instead to a light blacker than the thickest darkness.
He came like a thief on a night colored silver.
Many might consider this novel magical realism and they would be right. But maybe there should be a sub-genre of "black"-magical realism, for a book like this one, so filled with Obeah and omens of black vultures (john crows). And do I dare call this a satire? Because at times I wanted to chuckle, but mostly to keep myself from being so horrified at the events that I would chuck the book across the room. Maybe that's what makes a great dark satire! And James is a confident and terrifically skilled writer who handles this balance perfectly. One of his effective techniques is the occasional passage that uses a point of view that seems to come from the collective gossip of the village itself, sort of a small-town Greek chorus in a Jamaican tragedy play showing the mob mentality that can come from a town gripped in religious fervor. I loved the way that the town's hypocrisy and secrets slowly began to be revealed and ultimately lead to its downfall. James also created a couple of well-illustrated female characters in the Widow Greenfield and especially the tragic Lucinda, who was endlessly fascinating to read.
Lucinda was to be the bride of Christ but her ring finger got lost in a thatch of pubic hair. It was that damn Apostle. Him and those bold red books and the bold red tip of his circumcision.
I really enjoyed this one, although at times the author's wordsmithing got in the way of narrative pacing. But I was engaged throughout and would definitely recommend it. It really made me want to revisit his epic novel from last year, A Brief History of Seven Killings. I read that long book while shooting a movie last year, which I think was a mistake. I read John Crow's Devil when I had lots of time to focus my attention and get lost in the story. With three respected novels, Marlon James is definitely an author to watch and wait for what he does next.
God judgement a no play-play judgement. God not romping with we.

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