“John Crow’s Devil” by Marlon James

I organize a local book group, and while researching our January book, Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, I came across this blog entry by author Marlon James. I’d heard of him the year before when his Book of Night Women was a contender in the Tournament of Books and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He teaches at Macalester, near where I live, and one of my writing friends is working with him in a writing program through the Loft. So picking one of his books to follow O’Connor’s Wise Blood seemed an obvious choice, and John Crow’s Devil, with its dueling preachers in 50’s Jamaica, made an excellent contrast.

No living thing flew over the village of Gibbeah, neither fowl, nor dove, nor crow. Yet few looked above, terrified should an omen come in a shriek or flutter. Nothing flew but dust. It slipped through window blades, door cracks, and the lifting clay of rooftops. Dust coated house and ground, shed and tree, machine and vehicle with a blanket of gray. Dust hid blood, but not remembrance.

Gibbeah, named after a town in the book of Joshua from the Bible, is a tiny town on a small island, ridden with poverty and secrets. Two men occupy the foreground of the book, while two women support them in the background.

Pastor Bligh is also known as the Rum Preacher, though his drink of choice is whiskey. Yet they were “relieved by Pastor Bligh’s behavior…So tormented was he by his own sin that he could never convict them of theirs.” The pastor is a drunk, but not a bad man. “In a town that preferred things black or white, grayness such as his was not welcome.”

It’s no surprise, then, when the villagers are swayed by the appearance of Apostle York, “the other, who led them instead to a light blacker than the thickest darkness” and who “came like a thief on a night colored silver.” He preaches fire and brimstone, and literally kicks Bligh out of his own church.

York is abetted by Lucinda, whose history of abuse and ill treatment makes her worship of the Apostle easier to understand. Bligh is taken in by a widow who feeds him and nurses him as he detoxes from alcohol.

Mr Garvey is the town’s owner, “new kind of Massa”, a “black bastard” who “still had a birthright to money.” Prior to the conflict, Garvey appeared at the church, five mornings a year plus at “funerals of those of stature or those who died under tragic circumstances. Funeral was spectacle in Gibbeah.” Once York appears, Garvey is nowhere to be seen. Is he awaiting the outcome of the clash between York and a soon-rejuvenated Bligh?

Throughout, there is a chorus of town voices, written in a challenging-to-parse Jamaican patois. This shows the town’s point of view, while also injecting the grim narrative with some much-needed humor. Also throughout are birds that are not what they seem. John Crows are vultures, not crows, and its hard to know whose leadership they support. Doves, too, defy expectations in this violent and surprising story.

This is an extraordinary violent story set in Jamaica, which has one of the highest murder rates and is known as one of the most homophobic places on earth. Any redemption in the story comes at great and terrible cost, likely a result of the prejudice and poverty that pervade the fictional Gibbeah of the 50’s and, it could be argued, the Jamaica of the present.

Reaction to the book in our reading group was split, with most disliking it and criticizing it for its unrelenting violence. Yet I appreciated reading such an in-my-face novel of racism and religion after O’Connor’s different take on similar themes of leadership, religion, sin, and redemption.

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