Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Review: "John Crow's Devil" by Marlon James

A Brief History of Seven Killings is going to be a hard act to follow for writer Marlon James. It’s scope, its use of language and its fleshy beating heart seem unmatched when you compare it to anything else today, but that energy he exerted might be a once in a lifetime event, because I find none of it in his previous novels. His sophomore effort, The Book of Night Women showed his crazed heretic take on the English language, but it was used for a rather unoriginal story of American slavery, one that paled in comparison to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which I read the same year. His first novel, the one I just finished today, John Crow’s Devil, shows the greasy and wet gestation of what he would become, and its unformed nature show in a rather unhinged and chaotic narrative structure that overreaches and overstuffs almost everything in it’s slim 230 pages. The book takes place in Jamaica in the late 1950’s; although the story feels like it takes place 100 years before then. It tells of the struggle between two preachers and the village that each seeks to control. A man who calls himself Apostle York one day confronts Hector Bligh, known as the “Rum Preacher”, mid-sermon. Bligh, a drunk with a tenuous grasp of his place in the community and haunted by past infidelities, is easily ousted by the York, whose passionate sermons easily entrance the people of the village. With the help of a local widow, Bligh prepares for a bloody collision with York and the village that once respected him. Besides the two main characters and a few sides characters, such as the violate Clarence and the faithful Lucinda, it is hard to tell anyone apart in this jumbled narrative. The violence James so eagerly and expertly renders shows up only a few times, most memorably in the beginning and haunting end, but the ferocious originality I have come to expect from James is sorely lacking in this early work.

Rating: 3/5

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