'A Brief History of Seven Killings' reads like a reggae version of 'The Sound and the Fury'

This haunted and haunting tale of Jamaica’s bloody political struggles turns on the attempted assassination of Bob Marley.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James, Penguin Group, 704 pp.

Have you ever heard the word duppy? A duppy, in Jamaican folklore, is a ghost that walks among the living and sometimes makes its presence known – especially to those who are about to die. If you’re a wicked person nearing a violent end, a duppy is liable to creep up on you and taunt you, get up in your grill, and slick your face with its thick demon slobber. Once a duppy grabs hold of you, you can’t get away – how do you flee something that isn’t there? Small consolation: the duppy can’t go anywhere either. Trapped in time, nonliving but sentient, it endlessly relives the horrors it witnessed in life, “the train that never stopped running until it ran off the rails, the ledge from that building sixteen floors up, the car trunk that ran out of air. Rudeboys’ bodies bursting like pricked balloons, fifty-six bullets.”

In A Brief History of Seven Killings, the novelist Marlon James writes like a man possessed – haunted by a murky, brutal chapter in the history of his native Jamaica that won’t let him go. Back in the 1970s, deep in the Cold War, Jamaica was riven by a fight between two political factions: the socialist People’s National Party (PNP) and the comparatively conservative Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). On December 3, 1976, a band of armed thugs from Kingston’s shantytowns invaded the Hope Road compound of the reggae superstar Bob Marley and tried to kill him, two days ahead of a peaceable free concert called “Smile Jamaica,” which some saw as an advertisement for the ruling PNP. Scores of shots were fired in the attack, which was motivated partially by revenge for a horse-racing scam Marley had nothing to do with, partially by political feuds. Perhaps. At the end of the shooting spree, Marley, his wife, and his manager all had been seriously wounded. They survived – Marley even managed to perform at the concert – but the wave of anger, vice, and greed that precipitated the assault swept through Jamaican society for years after, resulting in the deaths of hundreds, even thousands. So much for “One Love.”

James’s magisterial, viscerally lyric epic begins on the eve of this shooting and travels forward two decades, reaching from the Cold War to the War on Drugs, from Jamaica to the United States, England, and Colombia. He does not so much explain why Kingston’s underworld turned on Jamaica’s national hero – and on itself – as to explore the how, resurrecting the turf wars, ambitions, passions, whims, and bloodlust that drove the culture of violence before and after 1976. In any case, there could be no adequate reason for the hellish acts of cruelty his novel records: in the words of the character Bam-Bam, a teenager who watches a shanty gang leader sexually violate his father before murdering him, “Killing don’t need no reason. This is ghetto. Reason is for rich people. We have madness.” At 15, Bam-Bam will shoot Marley’s wife, or try to,  while hepped up on coke – one of eight boys in “two Datsuns white / Like duppy” who become hapless tools for shantytown enforcers. “Bitch fly and crash on the ground / ‘Bout she was going make a clean getaway,” Bam-Bam exults, exhilarated by the mayhem. But there’s to be no clean getaway for anyone, James shows: rough justice comes to guilty and innocent alike in this novel, “concentric circles all leading to one bull’s eye,” and no mercy can come from “man who born with no light in them eye.”

A duppy leads off James’s symphony of voices – Sir Arthur George Jennings, a man who was pushed off a balcony in Montego Bay some time past and woke up a ghost with a “pumpkin-smashed head.” Artie is burdened for eternity to remember victims of the madness of his times, “boys who meant nothing to a world still spinning, but each of them as they pass me carry the sweet-stink scent of the man that killed me.” Anyone who thinks dead men tell no tales stands corrected: “Dead people never stop talking and sometimes the living hear,” Artie explains. “When you’re dead speech is nothing but tangents and detours and there’s nothing to do but stay and wander awhile.” The same holds true for the living, James suggests, as a vast cast of characters add their solos to the duppy’s – gangland dons and politicians; reporters and spies; corrupt cops and hit men; groupies, wives, and junkies –  all of them caught up in a spiral with no way out, all of them thinking they’ll make it to a nonexistent exit.

The sharp-edged pleasures of this book come from its protean, potent language. Each of James’s characters speaks in a distinct (though sometimes shifting) voice and dialect. Weeper, an educated man who turns cop killer after being tortured in Babylon prison, has two modes. “When he talk like a Jamaican he talk all coarse and evil. When he talk like a white man, he sound like he reading a book with big word.” Papa-Lo and Josey Wales, the dons of the Copenhagen City gang, which is affiliated with the JLP, often “chat bad” – studding their soliloquies with chewy bits of patois, like “bombocloth,” “rahtid,” “pum-pum,” “r’asscloth,” “battyman,” “pussyhole,” and “bloodclaat.” Other characters speak with the jaded fluency of a Tom Wolfe journalist, the burly, profane terseness of an Elmore Leonard tough, or the careful English diction of a girl who wants you to know she had a proper upbringing even if she doesn’t act like it. Among the hundred-odd voices that recur in these 700 pages, a handful stand out. There’s Barry DiFlorio, a CIA agent in Kingston who monitors the Communist threat drifting south from Cuba. There’s Nina Burgess, an unemployed receptionist who deludes herself with the fantasy that Bob Marley or an American lover will put her on a plane to New York. There’s Alex Pierce, a Rolling Stone journalist who blunders into homicide; and much later, John-John K, a gay hit man in the pay of the Medellín cartel, and Eubie, a cold-blooded, calculating Columbia Law School dropout who becomes an enforcer for a New York drug gang. Their overlapping tales repeat and circle, gradually revealing their interconnection, blending and magnifying each other’s impact.

If, while reading this sprawling saga, you feel like you’re reading a pulp fiction version of Faulkner’s "The Sound and the Fury", you are not mistaken. The author writes that it was rereading Faulkner that allowed him to find a structure that could unify this babel of voices, eliciting the jangling harmonies that thread through them. But, as with Faulkner, the artistry of James’s invention requires intense focus to follow; the chorus emerges slowly, and the reader cannot know the song before its singers do. James lets the learning come after – a disturbing lesson whose rough music builds and resonates, achieving coherence only in its lingering echo. “People think me understand everything to the fullness,” Papa-Lo reflects, as he attempts to untangle the roots of the Marley shooting. “But Jah know, sometimes I don’t learn till too late.”

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