I always planned on writing the great American novel. The good news is I no longer have to. Marlon James has done it for me. His lengthy master piece called “A Brief History of Seven Killings” is a definite killer but it’s far from brief. This near seven hundred-page masterpiece is so dynamic in scope that I am writing this raving review and I haven’t even finished the tome yet. Its that good and I honestly don’t think I’ll ever be finished with this book because I don’t want it to end. I’ll reference it, (many pages are already dog eared). I’ll pick it up from time to time and just read random paragraphs the way you might just listen to a song from a favorite album again and again.
This book is a triple album worth of goodness and poetry and lingo and run on sentences and linear thought then drug addled scats then confusion and finally confoundedness. It makes no sense then all the sense. It’s David Foster Wallace but with a story line you can follow, most of the time. It’s magical in its multiple viewpoints and transcendence in scope and majesty as it captures a nation and a time in flux.
Think gang torn Jamaica in the late 1970s and the murder of Bob Marley as the backdrop. Spice in a cast of characters that could appear in Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather,” and you begin to get the elevator speech understanding of what this novel is about. But you are only scratchy the surface.
I once saw E.L Doctorow speak and he was asked to address the criticism he receives from reporters who say he gets facts wrong in his splendid historical fictional works like “Ragtime” and “The March.” His answer was that a journalist’s job is to tell you what happened, his job on the other hand as a novelist was to tell you how it felt.
James accomplishes that and more by assuming multiple points of view of characters real and imagined and their accounting of a few days in Kingston, Jamaica. With a troubled nation bracing for a tumultuous national election, James uses numerous voices to put the reader in the heart and heat of matter. There are CIA agents, gang warlords, Rock journalists, wanna bes and has beens. It’s a collage of humans all hovering around the dreaded one- Marley or simply the “Singer” as he is singularly referenced throughout the epic.
James writes with such aplomb that he rarely misses the beat. You feel the angst of a hit man and the drunken high of an over served tourist, the triumphant passion of a woman who bedded Marley once all while you are sympathizing with a Don who has ordered or overseen dozens of killings. There is great delight as you traverse the tangled web of characters all with a distinctive voice and angle to the story that gripped a nation.
This book will stay alongside my bed the way I keep my favorite CDs never too far from the player. There are selections that read like jazz impresarios and others that are as choppy as a hip hob beat. Reading it conjures up connections to great albums of the pass. There are insights into Marley’s lyrics and clandestine revelations on music and American culture in general. Take this sample “The Reggae is nothing more than a man talking, reasoning with another man, conversing to and fro.” Had you ever hear a better definition of the musical genre? If this book were an album, it would be The Clash’s “London Calling.”
James is Jamaican born; therefore, we should perhaps refer to his third novel here as the great Americo-Caribbean Novel. But as far as my need to finish my own book, I’m even more driven even if I know it would be hard to top this gem.