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Anthony C. Winkler's The Duppy

The Stop Smiling Review

(Akashic Books)

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Thursday, April 03, 2008


The Duppy
By Anthony C. Winkler
(Akashic Books)

Review by Todd Dills

Anthony C. Winkler’s The Duppy is the most laugh-out-loud funny novel I’ve read in years. Chronicling the death and afterlife of Taddeus Baps, Jamaican shopkeeper cum “duppy” — island slang for soul or ghost — the book blends postmodern metafiction with folklorist regionalism in a raucous contemporary satire of the wages of sin.

Baps is doing his shop’s numbers when he has a heart attack and dies. His maid and his gardener make off with their due two weeks’ worth of wages, taken from his pocket, and he makes shortly the discovery that the route to Jamaican heaven (that’s right — heaven comes with national divisions intact) is a “crawl through a low culvert.” As Baps tells it, “‘I am not crawling through a culvert at my age!’ I roared. ‘I was not a bad Jamaican. I paid taxes, I denounced political tribalism and bogus voting.... What I do dat I must ride minibus and crawl like mongoose through a culvert to get to heaven?... What about de bright light and de dark tunnel and de sweet music?’”

That’s American heaven, as Baps finds out, befriending none other than the great God himself upon his arrival and assumption of heavenly shopkeeper’s duties. Jamaican heaven exists, just as real-world Jamaica, with all its class and political-power divisions intact, including the dark shadow cast over the local culture by the superpower to the north. It’s also a place where, as Baps finds out, to get “licked down,” or knocked violently to the ground, by another duppy is perhaps the greatest pleasure available — there is no pain in heaven, not even chafing from a two-day “grinding” session with one of the many overweight church women (in heaven, they hold the keys to sexual agency, beating it out of the men by sheer force of will).

That absence of pain is under attack in American heaven, where Baps travels with God. To travel like a real duppy, God takes form as Baps’ mental image of “ole negar,” the shopkeeper’s stereotype of Jamaicans of a lower class, a lynchpin in Winkler’s satire. It is an enlightening trip, to say the least — American heaven is a nation of suburban streets whose houses all have an accompanying cloud with a certain number of lambs and harpists to come with it. New York City exists in a state somewhere between its colonial manifestation and the homogenous nature of its neverending suburbs. The sky rains manna — or “breadcrumbs,” as ole negar God calls it — three times a day. But the fundamentalists among the American population are on a crusade to force God to reintroduce pain into their world. Without pain, of course, how to hold the infidels to account?

God and Baps are spotted by an agent of the fundamentalists outside of town, and a slip of Baps’ tongue gives away ole negar’s true identity. In the chase that follows, Baps is forced to confront his ole negar stereotype head-on, to even take the form of the man. Mistaken for God in disguise, Baps as ole negar is shot with a God-ray gun by American agents, arrested, and, though the gun has little effect on him, he plays along, eventually proving the antithesis of his image of ole negar. “Yea, Baps, there’s good in the heart of all who walk the world,” as God puts it. “Even old negar.”

Winkler ups the comic ante by leaving the page following this scene blank. As Baps tells it, “It is left purposely blank as a convenience to suffering readers who, outraged at this cock-and-bull story about ole negar’s supposed goodheartedness, now strongly desire to thump down this book.”

The metafictional aspects of The Duppy are wholly appropriate for such a fantastic folktale — in the end, Baps is granted his old life back, which he lives with a new respect for the class outside his own. And though this might sound a smidge too neat an end for such a raucous journey, it’s all the more appreciable for the empathic release it provides, a measure beyond the sharp satire — if, that is, you can stop laughing long enough to dig your emotional teeth in.

Winkler, well-respected by all manner of Jamaican scribes, is experiencing something of a surge in popularity in the US as New York indie Akashic Books releases several of his titles here, including Dog War and The Lunatic.


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