The Jamaican Book of the Dead

Marlon James’s epic and dizzying third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, is anything but brief and describes far more than seven killings. The book’s two main backdrops are Kingston, Jamaica, during the political warfare of the late 1970s and New York City during the crack epidemic of the mid-’80s. Both of these settings allow the author to display his exquisite talent for penning death scenes, which appear with a frequency that brings to mind the Iliad. Where James’s previous novel, The Book of Night Women, described the desire for freedom and power in a matriarchal community, his latest work, based on actual events, delineates strategies of war in a world of men—gang lords, hit men, politicians, and CIA agents, to name just a few.

A Brief History opens in 1976, as the gangster Josey Wales and his cohorts orchestrate an intricate plan to assassinate Bob Marley (referred to in fictional guise as “the Singer”) just days before he is to perform a concert in National Heroes Park. Wisely, James treats the Singer as a symbolic figure rather than a main character; in this case, he represents a dream of equality. Wales and his gunmen have been hired to put an end to that dream, and though the Singer survives, as did Marley, the gangsters pursue their task with characteristic ruthlessness. James’s brilliant move is to use this drama, well documented in popular culture (perhaps most famously by Marley himself in the lyrics of “Ambush in the Night”), as the entry point to a broader story of Jamaican unrest that eventually spills over its borders into the US.

As character-driven, dark, and complex as The Sopranos or The Wire, A Brief History features dozens of narrators, including Nina, a striving middle-class woman propelled by the violence to emigrate to the US; Barry, a disgruntled CIA station chief; and Papa-Lo, a rival gang leader influenced by the Singer’s music to seek peace. But the driving force is the marvelous Josey, the kingpin and linchpin who holds the narrative strands together. The novel tracks his ascent to power as he becomes boss of Copenhagen City (code for the Tivoli Gardens ghetto of West Kingston), a mastermind behind a gang called the Storm Posse, and lord of the drug corridor between Colombia and the US. His path mirrors that of real-life don Lester Lloyd Coke, who controlled Jamaican operations of the infamous Shower Posse until his death in 1992.

Like many other leaders from the garrisons of James’s thinly disguised ghettos, Josey has been armed and trained by the CIA, which, fearing that Jamaica will become another Cuba, hopes to disable the socialist-democratic agenda of Prime Minister Michael Manley’s government. Since Jamaica won independence in 1962, politicians of both major parties, the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP), have financed strongmen, or dons, like Josey to deliver votes in exchange for development projects and cash. Dons from JLP turf warred against dons from PNP turf, with civilians caught in the crossfire in the escalating violence. At the peak of the strife in the election year of 1980, a period described by James in lush, violent detail, a staggering 889 murders were reported.

James is not the first to suggest that Marley, who had attained prophet status and seemed to support Manley’s increasingly socialist vision, became a target of CIA-backed JLP leaders. Vivien Goldman’s The Book of Exodus covers this ground and follows Marley into his exile in the UK. Nor is James the first to expose how thugs linked to the JLP became drug runners in a cocaine pipeline from Colombia to the US. Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion and Daurius Figueira’s Cocaine and Heroin Trafficking in the Caribbean explore similar terrain. But to the best of my knowledge, Marlon James is the first to go at this historical moment through fiction. This allows him to get inside the heads of brutal people, to fill in the gaps left by historical research, and to find the humanity (and even humor) in the grimmest of situations.

Bob Marley performing, 1980.

Despite his Tarantinoesque flair for violence, James frequently pauses to show exactly how and why the trigger is being pulled. One of the book’s strongest and most tragic narrators is fourteen-year-old Bam-Bam, a sensitive boy soldier recruited by Wales to help execute the hit on the Singer. By the time we reach the breathtaking chapter in which Bam-Bam narrates the frenzied ambush (in free verse, no less), we’ve already witnessed the hard life and maddening poverty that have deadened him to killing.

In Bam-Bam’s sections, as well as in those narrated by Demus, a gangster with a conscience, James shows off his superb talent for evoking his settings. Here is Demus in stream of consciousness, fleeing a crime scene on foot while coming down off a coke high, fiending for another fix: “Bush. No wood, no floor, no window, just bush. On the ground, under a tree hanging tamarind and bats. Tamarind in the dirt. Tamarind in the grass from one to another, tamarind to tamarind to tamarind to broken dish to Pepsi bottle to doll’s head to grass to weed to zinc fence. A yard, somebody’s yard.” Note how the rush of words seems to trip in rhythm with the man’s feet as he navigates his landscape. James’s use of language is consistently visceral, as tough as it is lovely. He has an excellent ear for different registers of dialect and diction according to class and locale, moving with ease from a Jamaican gangster to a Cuban explosives expert to a Colombian drug queen to a white doctor who, sadly enough, cannot comprehend that Jamaicans speak English.

James builds toward the assassination attempt with exciting momentum counterbalanced by quieter moments, such as a subplot detailing Nina’s obsessive efforts to spy on the Singer by watching his house from across the road. In comparison with the thrilling gangster business, some of these interludes drag on and become dull. (Doesn’t everything, compared to gangsters?) Lengthy phone conversations between CIA agents verge on prattling. The pace also lags in the sections narrated from the point of view of Alex Pierce, a Rolling Stone reporter on assignment to cover the Singer’s concert, eager to be “down” and hungry for a bigger scoop about political power shifts in Jamaica.

But when Alex shows up in the book’s penultimate section still sniffing out a story, it’s an occasion for real insight. By this point, in 1985, Josey has moved from trafficking in guns to trafficking cocaine, the “white wife,” through the Storm Posse, which has become an international ring. Alex goes to Rikers Island to interview an inmate named Tristan Phillips, member of a rival gang called the Ranking Dons. Ostensibly, Alex wants to write a book about the failed peace treaty between rival gangs that had its apotheosis at the 1978 One Love Peace Concert, at which the Singer joined opposing party leaders’ hands. But Tristan, like all the gangsters in this book, is a fiercely intelligent man, and quickly figures out that Alex is more interested in uncovering how Josey came to power and who the real forces are behind the drug trade. “Make me get this straight. You writing book ’bout the Singer, the gangs, the peace treaty. A book on the posses? You know, each one of those is a whole book.”

This is more than a sly joke about the length and breadth of A Brief History. In a sleight of hand, James turns these interviews with Tristan into a metafictional exchange about what sort of book Alex, and by extension James, ought to attempt.

Maybe somebody should put all of this craziness together, because no Jamaican going do it. No Jamaican can do it, brother either we too close or somebody going stop we. It don’t even have to get that far, just the fear that somebody going come after we going make we stop. But none of we going see that far. . . . We did have things going good and then it go to shit. Now is shit for so long that people grow up in shit thinking shit is all they is. But people need to know that. Maybe that too big for you. Maybe that too big for one book, and you should keep things close and narrow. Focused. I mean to rahtid, watch me asking you to write the whole four hundred year reason why my country will always be trying not to fail. . . . Wait till everybody dead before you publish it, alright?

Alex winds up writing not the book Tristan suggests but a series of investigative New Yorker articles called “A Brief History of Seven Killings.” In this story within the story, he accomplishes on a micro level what James has done in the novel, examining the origins, rise, and fallout of Jamaican organized crime. We’re made privy to some of Alex’s writing when he is eventually forced to read it aloud by a Storm Posse enforcer, who breaks into his home after the first of the articles is published and tortures him, coercing him to pull incriminating information from the next articles in the series. Reading this scene causes discomfort for obvious reasons, but it also gives James’s book much of its power, suggesting that the document that has reached us contains powerful truths, truths over which a writer, in the act of conveying them, could get killed. For that reason, and for its masterful language, A Brief History of Seven Killings announces Marlon James as a writer in the same league as Salman Rushdie, Reinaldo Arenas, and others who’ve risked their skin to get at the truth. As the Jamaican proverb he chose for his epigraph says, “If it no go so, it go near so.” If the purpose of reportage is to tell us what happened, and the purpose of fiction is to show us how it felt, then James has succeeded on both counts.

Emily Raboteau is the author of Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013).