Set in 1957, five years before independence, John Crow’s Devil is a story about a rural St. Andrew village, laid out like a cross in the hills. Authority rests with the pastor, a Hector Bligh, and the major land owner, in this case one who owns the village outright, a Mr. Aloysius Garvey, dark skinned but with hair that implies European ancestry. Some reviewers assume it was a Marcus Garvey reference but "Garvey" as a surname in Jamaica came from the enslavers. The UCL slave owners database lists a Michael Garvey as an estate owner in St. Ann, the parish where Marcus Garvey was born.
The accepted balance—between the aloof Garvey, who attended church with a strange passel of young "nephews" arranged by skin colour (light to dark), and alcoholic Bligh who surprised no one when discovered passed out drunk near the road with his enormous penis unveiled—is disrupted when a light skinned figure in billowing black and red robes (in no wind) enters the church and beats the sinful Rum Preacher out of the church. The mighty Apostle York.
"The black grotesque discomforts the world, disparaging and reforming the official order of things." - Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman
What to make of this debut? Festooned with cockies and pokies galore, bestiality, rape, pedophilia, whippings, and suicide, roiling in apocalyptic fervour and biblical language entwined from root to tip with Obeah and a steady slide into Anti-Christ dealings, Revelation, I ended the book wondering...why?
I found the ‘extremist religion is bad mmkay/vivid, true to life take on village life’ perspectives unhelpful. There are plenty of books with those themes and they don't look like this. Just James’ style then? Unsatisfactory. What was in James that made him proffer this gothic Jamaican pastoral? What moved a gay man to write a book in which homosexuality is linked to child abuse and paired with STIs?
Jia Tolentino's comprehensive New Yorker profile on James explained a lot. In his struggles with his sexual orientation he sought help from an uptown Evangelical church, where speaking in tongues is required, and whose pastor likely had a boisterous preaching style not that dissimilar to York's. He voluntarily underwent an exorcism that lasted over a day and vomited in two plastic bags. Reading of his personal connection to such an oppressive religious space started to open the book to me. That exorcism did offer the clarity he needed rather than what the exorcists intended but there were some lingering toxic ideas he needed to work through (understandably).
He also stated that he wanted to depart from the more comforting depictions of rural life. Ah! Here it was. Further readings on the gothic in Caribbean fiction written by Sheri-Marie Harrison and Bethany Louise Grimm explored further what I had hesitantly guessed at but did not see confirmed until Tolentino linked James' writing to William Faulkner (who I thought of) as well as Toni Morrison (who everyone else cites).
You see, John Crow's Devil is a declarative break from almost everything else that had come before in Jamaican fiction. Lurid, propulsive, graphic, transgressive sexualities abound, chased by a heated, detailed fanatical violence in an isolated colonial remnant. The great house simulacrum is a literal tomb; Obeah is witchcraft, not a bolstering connection to a West African past; and it ends with no corrective for any social ills, unlikely to ever be included in a high school curriculum, the Caribbean canon's usual resting place. This is not the lens through which to understand John Crow's Devil but it's the only one that makes sense to me.
John Crow's Devil
By Marlon James.
242 Pages. 2005.
Buy it here.