A Brief History of Seven KillingsA Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

ok so purely by chance this is actually the seventh book i’ve read so far this year… yep, i’ve been holding out on ya! the others were ok but really nothing i wanted to comment on (well, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher rocked, but you already knew that). … but this book, i want to comment on.

our Brief History… well, it’s certainly not brief, and while it’s based on actual events, there is so much not generally known about those events… and the book doesn’t really claim to report them, anyway. even though there’s a reporter in here. and one of his works is called “A Brief History of Seven Killings.”

so! sleight of hand aside…

the book is centered around the 1976 shooting of Bob Marley in Kingstown. Marley himself is terrifically ghostly in this book–you’re not going to get a real or fictionalized version of Marley’s life. but the lives of those who shot him, and some of the collateral damage the shooting caused, and the outward shock waves of chaos and carnage… yep, you get those.

it’s a huge story with a helplessness-inducing cast–probably works better in the print book than in audio,* which i did–everybody from the orphan kid who watched his parents’ murders to an uptown Manhattan old white man addled with dementia, and lots and lots (but not everybody) in between. the book begins 20 years or so before the shooting and ends around 2008 (if memory serves).

can’t say the book lacks for ambition.

so, at 700+ pages or 26+ hours, depending on your ingestion style, we know we’re not looking at a quick, light read, right? but the thing is, absolutely nothing prepares you for the darkness and the violence of this book.

many of our main characters are gang members–just thugs, really, although a few have a varnish of intelligence–and they act like it. really so, not hollywood so, where you might expect one to experience redemption at the cart of the local bookmobile lady. nope, these guys (all but one are guys) kill, maim, stab, shoot, whore, strangle, hang, beat down, torture, threaten, terrify, run over, burn down, and just generally massacre and mayhem whomever they like, as often as they like, and they do like, they do. (even the reporter gets in a killing in self-defense.)

so i don’t know, i’ve never known any drugrunning thugs, maybe this is the be-all and end-all of their universe. i certainly see absolutely no evidence in this book that the author didn’t do his homework. but after like 20 hours i started thinking: wait. even a thug’s gotta have one thing he loves, right? or a moment where he just enjoys the sunshine? laughs in a non-bwhahaha way? pets a puppy? now maybe this really is the stupidest line of questioning on the planet, cause maybe all these main characters are 100% pathological one way or another… but don’t even sociopaths like sun?

so i started not loving this book so much, thinking that.

and the misogyny. i don’t for a moment believe it’s the author’s misogyny, or at least i hope not. the characters, though, our thugs, yikes. there’s almost no women in the book, there’s only pussy, and they’re only there to get fucked, for the most part. not a non-fuckable part of a woman, apparently. and yet no woman (with one possible exception) really rises above her parts, because even the one woman main character spends so much of the book tuned directly into men. even men so ancient they haven’t any testosterone left to be a lover or a threat. she has very little inner life not concerning herself with men. that is the one part of the book that rang false to me.

and the cussing! damn! the book would have been 550 pages if you took out the cussing. now me, i like a good cuss–a well-timed, imaginative one is a sweet little prize–and good invective is pure pleasure. but these guys! if i ever hear the word “pussyhole” again it’ll be waaaaaay too many lives too soon. not a curse-smith in the bunch.

and so we come to the thing i wanted, really, to write this missive-to-the-ether about. this book is absolutely drenched in violence, misogyny, and poor cussing. and i’m not saying that it isn’t true, not one little bit. this may be the most perfect portrayal of a bunch of lowlife Jamaicans ever. maybe verisimilitude score is 100%. (my life experience makes me a poor judge.) certainly despite everything i’m bitching about, it’s an exceedingly well-written book, a masterpiece of sorts.

it’s the sort that bugs me. and not about Jamaicans thug or no, but about us. us humans.

one of the other books i recently finished off was The Painter, which had a lot in common with this book. it was sort of a watered-down version in terms of the violence and misogyny and cussing, but still, very similar vein. toward the end of The Painter, our painter, who has offed at least a couple people by then and was gonna have to do in more, is wailing in a rather precious way about how does this keep happening to him? how is it he ends up having to kill dude after dude?

the answer is pretty obvious–he seeks it out, one way or another.

and i really begin to wonder: are books like these our own bent-species way of seeking it out? listening to A Brief History is agreeing to spend at least 26 hours in a world where violence and hatred gets painted with the prettiest art a very good writer can ink on the page. i begin to wonder whether, as a species, we are not putting all this energy into the wrong damned thing.

and i don’t know, really. i mean, i would never in a million years advocate censoring human ugliness from writing. we are sometimes an ugly species and i suppose that deserves just as fine an artistic treatment as does what’s best in us.

i guess my objections boil down to what Kurt said: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” and if we are pretending to be a nasty, brutish species… well.


* no slur on the audio readers at all–they’d really better win the Audies this year, or there is zero justice in the world.