James has written an exhilarating, transnational, cross-generational, vice-city ride through the garbage town wastelands of the Jamaican ghettos and the slum tenements of New York City. James used the inimitable cadence of Jamaican patois to voice the gang-ridden, vicious underbelly of life in the Caribbean. The attempted execution of “the singer” Bob Marley was, incredibly, only a subplot! “A Brief History Of Seven Killings” dealt with the effects of poverty on the local population and the rampant drug use in poor areas. Closely observed were the various layers in the Jamaican social strata, the plight of homosexual men, Jamaican politics, police brutality and the awful way that women were treated. It is a wide-ranging and ambitious must-read, modern masterpiece.
Life in Jamaica was riddled with violence and drugs which became a crutch for the gangsters in the ghetto to bolster their self-confidence before they murdered innocent people. Sex, violence and hardship went together. Bam Bam wanted to “fuck fuck fuck” after freebasing coke. “This is what it must feel like when woman get her titties sucked” he thought. His base desires to fuck and kill rose to the surface before his thoughts turned dark and he wanted to ring a boy’s neck and “rub his face” in the blood.
Narcotics numbed people to the harsh conditions that they lived in. Once gang members got high, their ethics loosened up sufficiently enough to justify killing. This was a deliberate strategy on the part of the gang leaders as they strategically plied their minions full of drugs before venturing out to kill people. Papa Lo gave his crew coke before milling through West Trenchtown on murderous rampages. “I hate trying to think in a straight line, but in Jamaica a straight line is white” he said in one of the innumerable one-liners.
“It’s nothing to kill a boy” said Bam Bam, who represented generational poverty; his father had beaten his mother for being a prostitute and they were both callously murdered. He could not escape the life pre-ordained for him.
Kim Clarke offered a solution. Leave. She understood that “Jamaica never changes. It only finds new ways to stay the same” and took appropriate action.
Josey Wales played dumb when he spoke to the CIA so that he did not arouse suspicion. So supercilious were they, that they viewed him as barely being able to talk. “Remember to throw in a thank you man” and keep up the act, he kept reminding himself so that they could keep pigeonholing him as a mindless hired goon.
The CIA was frequently found to be espousing democracy whilst completely missing the point that the bigger issue at play was class. Ignoring the poverty and focusing on preventing communism was not enough.
Alex Pierce, the Rolling Stone journalist and writer, was seen by Tristan Philips as the only person who could “write the whole 400-year reason why my country is going to fail”. It was telling that Philips saw a white man as the only one capable of this. Not that the characters fared that much better in the US. Dorcas Palmer was still cleaning up the shit and piss of people in her day job there while the gangbangers still gangbanged. Josey Wales had an interesting thought on the difference between the Jamaican ghetto and the tenements in New York, “nobody knows the difference between a good thing and a bigger bad thing”.
Weeper took advantage of the social freedoms in the US and lived openly as a gay man in New York having been unable to do so in Jamaica. The level of homophobia in the Jamaican ghettoes was staggering by any metric. The incessant use of the derogatory term “batty boy” to describe homosexuals was frightening. Weeper could not escape this when dealing with his fellow Jamaican gangsters in New York.
This is not to say that homosexual men had it easy in America. Consider John-John K when his father found his gay porn stash, “fucking dirty little faggot. There is a special place in hell for people like you”. Despite this, he was able to hold his ground with his father and have the confidence to make the decision to come out.
Women fought hard to live independent lives in both countries. Nina Burgess, in Jamaica, was violently beaten by her father Maurice. It pushed Nina over the edge and she ran away from her family. When she shacked up with Chuck, he began to casually refer to her (now Kim Clarke) as his “sexy little slut”. Clarke was used to this behaviour and casually batted it off as “one of two hundred mistakes men make with women they live with every day”.
Clarke is the real heroine of the story. Setting her sights on escaping from Jamaica next, she had to clean, cook and fuck to try to get a green card. “You never become a difficult bitch. That’s the white woman’s territory” she thought, afraid to jeopardise her future. Her devastation when he inevitably discarded her was harsh yet symptomatic of society at the time. Clarke said that white men wanted to “educate” them, underscoring the racist misogyny at play.
The democratic institutions in Jamaica were incapable of maintaining a peaceful society in the 1970s. Citizens were found guilty without trial. Weeper had his penis electrocuted whilst being tortured in prison, traumatising him for the rest of his life.
The police stripped suspects and got them to nakedly gyrate against the empty pavement and forcing them to fuck the ground. They were demeaned and persecuted without due process. Papa Lo and his gang were gunned down in broad daylight as the Jamaican police acted as judge, jury and executioner. They were corrupt to the core, taking bribes from the gangsters.
“It looks like we are planning for war while everyone else is planning for peace” Josey said to said to himself as he worked out why the US was sending such huge shipments of arms to help repel the communist PLP party and kill off Bob Marley.
Humour is rife throughout. Think of when the CIA gave Josey Wales a picture book, aimed at school children, about the benefits of democracy. “Look here’s someone eating a twinkie,” says a caption promoting this utopian democratic society! During the planning of Marley’s assassination, Josey was frequently referred to as “my boy” and Lewis Johnson referred to him as his “well trained” dog.
The enormous scope of James’s novel can make it appear daunting at first. It is a long and sprawling novel which could just as easily been called “A Long And Detailed History Of A Thousand Killings” yet it succeeds beautifully in every regard. As an adrenaline-fuelled, page-turner and also as a forensic study of Jamaican society in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Tristan Philips sums it up nicely, “mind you now Alex Pierce. Jamaica can shoot through your veins and it became like every dark thing that not good for you”.