Revisiting Marlon James’s Debut Novel, ‘John Crow’s Devil’

Michiko Kakutani, the former chief book critic for The New York Times, reviewed Marlon James’s latest novel, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” on this week’s Book Review cover. Below is an excerpt from our 2005 review of James’s first novel, “John Crow’s Devil” — which was famously rejected 78 times.

The tiny Jamaican backwater of Gibbeah is locked in a mythic battle for its soul. But although the combatants are (predictably enough) Good and Evil, it’s often hard to tell them apart. For years, the village’s spiritual needs have been tended by a conventional brand of Christianity imposed by the local plantation owner, to whom most of the parishioners owe their livelihood. Intended more to keep them in line than to bring them closer to God, this form of worship has as its temporal representative Hector Bligh, “a sinner playing a saint’s game,” a man so consumed by alcohol that his flock dismisses him as “the Rum Preacher.”

Yet Marlon James’s powerful first novel is more than a theological contest pitting a ferocious god against a passive one. Both the Rum Preacher and the Apostle turn out to be driven not by faith but by guilt, in both cases guilt driven by sexual transgressions. Battling their personal sins sends them in opposite directions, only to come full circle into a clash that will be Gibbeah’s own version of Armageddon.

Although the battle of the preachers is at the center of his novel, James isn’t interested only in the struggle between these two flawed individuals. And as the war for spiritual control of the town widens, the focus of the novel also shifts. The collective voice of the villagers, a chorus in Jamaican dialect, echoes the bewilderment — occasionally expressed with fatalistic humor — that grips Gibbeah. In hallucinatory passages, the souls of the town’s inhabitants release demons that have been hidden within them. In the aftermath, more than a few people begin to wonder if they’re living in a cursed place where nothing and no one can save them.

Writing with assurance and control, James uses his small-town drama to suggest the larger anguish of a postcolonial society struggling for its own identity.

Read the entire review here.

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