The Devil's Drawers: Marlon James
Received Fictions and Other Persiflage
Thursday, December 01, 2005
John Crow's Devil
Reviewed by Lara Kristin Lentini
Marlon James seems to have been distracted from his ambition to write a novel by his strong fascination with all that is filthy, animal and debased. Hardly a page goes by in his debut novel without a character, minor or major, fouling the pages in some way: vomiting, losing control of bladder or bowels, drooling, or having unexplained seizures that result in all of the above. Graphic dismemberments and undignified deaths also feature prominently.
One minor character ? introduced only to be killed two pages later ? is struck by lightning during sexual relations with a cow, and frozen (or, more accurately, charred) in the midst of the act for all to see, having built a harness that would allow him to pursue his dubious hobby. Another character graphically castrates her father after he rapes her, then undergoes demonic possession in church, then drowns in the river ? again in the space of two pages. Neither incident seems to advance the narrative or have any significance to the major characters. If the intent was to create an array of memorable and unique characters, the effect is strangely opposite. After a few such incidents, the characters begin to seem oddly uniform, each dutifully displaying the same facets: a grim secret, a thirst for revenge, obsessive guilt, a self-punishing streak. They are not one-dimensional, but they seem to share the same dimensions, like action figures cast in plastic from nearly identical molds.
The plot, a sort of magical-realist parable of a battle between good-ish and evil-ish, concerns a town in Jamaica where a drunken, incompetent pastor, haunted by memories of catastrophic sin in his past, is cast out of his church by a flashy new holy man. A struggle for the souls of the townspeople follows.
As a setup, it's intriguing enough, and as a stylist, James has definite merits. Sections of the book are written in a lilting Jamaican patois, which is lovely ? warm and spacious, rendered with skill and without exaggeration ? and which does more to provide a sense of place than any of the book's descriptive passages. He also has a flawless ear for the rhetoric of preaching, even managing to give his two competing characters their own distinct voices. There are valleys between these stylistic peaks, where James falls back on clunky, style-less exposition; but overall the author's skill with language is the reader's reward for slogging through the filth.