Marlon James’ latest novel A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS is a serious work of literature, and a welcome punch in the face compared to the angsty emo-lit that too frequently crawls onto the shelves of our bookstores. To call this book The Great Jamaican Novel unfairly reduces the book into a nationalist creed, or else an experience singular to people familiar with Jamaica and its history. I don’t know anything about Jamaica, drugs, prison or killing people, but this, to me, was an exhilarating, bloody story of survival and fate.
A few thoughts about plot: the story loosely follows several characters in Kingston throughout the 1970s. Rival gangs occupy different communities such as Copenhagen City, Eight Lanes, and Trench Town (yes, the Trench Town you’ve heard Bob Marley mention). Marley appears as a character known as “The Singer,” a mysterious character with tremendous political power, threatening to the Kingston criminal syndicate, and closely watched by the C.I.A. for fear of nudging Jamaica closer to the communism of its near neighbor, Cuba.
To be clear: this is a graphic, bloody work of art. If you are uncomfortable reading about murder, rape, drugs, and torture, you should think about reading a different book. And yet the novel is not without humor, and character, and self-deprecation lest we take these serious subjects too seriously. Marlon James handles his subject matter with delicate gravity; we feel pain when mothers find their sons killed on the streets; we also laugh when the Ranking Dons chalk up their crimes to fate, to the wind, to things just being the way they are. The book is not nihilistic; rather, it’s more closely aligned with a story like The Godfather, where people are just trying to do business, but the business is bad, and it always goes wrong.
Josey Wales, who starts out second-in-command, with grander aspirations, pretends he doesn’t speak Spanish, doesn’t know how to read, cons his CIA cronies, and takes more and more power as the years go by. That I eventually sympathized with him and wanted him to survive/thrive, in spite of his undeniable psychopathy, is a testament to James’ detachment and merciless objectivity as an author.
This is a good fucking book, people. It is also a very difficult book to read. Clomping in at 688 pages (Riverhead, 1st Edition), there are passages where the eyes glaze over because one killing after another seems repetitive even if true to the life portrayed on the page. However, the dense pages in the middle do lift as we escape Jamaica and explore the nascent crack market in 1980s Bushwick, Bronx, and Queens. It’s like the book breathes, as it should, when we get the hell off the island and start our lives again, and then, for the final 90 pages, it races. . .races. . .crushes the finish.