Marlon James

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A Brief History of Seven Killings: A Novel

Format: Paperback, 704 Pages
Publisher: Riverhead Books; 1st edition (September 8, 2015)
Genre: Fiction
Edition Language: English
ISBN-10: 1594633940
ISBN-13: 978-1594633942

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In A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James combines masterful storytelling with his unrivaled skill at characterization and his meticulous eye for detail to forge a novel of dazzling ambition and scope.

On December 3, 1976, just before the Jamaican general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica Concert to ease political tensions in Kingston, seven unnamed gunmen stormed the singer’s house, machine guns blazing. The attack wounded Marley, his wife, and his manager, and injured several others. Little was officially released about the gunmen, but rumors abounded regarding the assassins’ fates. A Brief History of Seven Killings is James’s fictional exploration of that dangerous and unstable time in Jamaica’s history and beyond. Deftly spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters—assassins, drug dealers, journalists, and even ghosts—James brings to life the people who walked the streets of 1970s Kingston, who dominated the crack houses of 1980s New York, and who reemerged into a radically altered Jamaica of the 1990s. Brilliantly inventive, A Brief History of Seven Killings is an “exhilarating” (The New York Times) epic that’s been called “a tour de force” (The Wall Street Journal).

Marlon James was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1970. He is the author of The Book of Night Women, which won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, The Minnesota Book Award and was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction as well as an NAACP Image Award. His first novel John Crow’s Devil was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and was a New York Times Editor’s Choice. In his third novel, A Brief History Of Seven Killings, James is exploring multiple genres: the political thriller, the oral biography, and the classic whodunit to confront the untold history of Jamaica in the late 1970’s; of the assassination attempt on Bob Marley, and the country’s own clandestine battles of the cold war.

James graduated from the University of the West Indies in 1991 with a degree in Language And Literature, and from Wilkes University in 2006 with a Masters in creative writing. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared widely including in Esquire, Granta, and The Caribbean Review of Books.

Listen.

Dead people never stop talking. Maybe because death is not death at all, just a detention after school. You know where you’re coming from and you’re always returning from it. You know where you’re going though you never seem to get there and you’re just dead. Dead. It sounds final but it’s a word missing an ing. You come across men longer dead than you, walking all the time though heading nowhere and you listen to them howl and hiss because we’re all spirits or we think we are all spirits but we’re all just dead. Spirits that slip inside other spirits. Sometimes a woman slips inside a man and wails like the memory of making love. They moan and keen loud but it comes through the window like a whistle or a whisper under the bed, and little children think there’s a monster. The dead love lying under the living for three reasons. (1) We’re lying most of the time. (2) Under the bed looks like the top of a coffin, but (3) There is weight, human weight on top that you can slip into and make heavier, and you listen to the heart beat while you watch it pump and hear the nostrils hiss when their lungs press air and envy even the shortest breath. I have no memory of coffins.

But the dead never stop talking and sometimes the living hear. This is what I wanted to say. When you’re dead speech is nothing but tangents and detours and there’s nothing to do but stray and wander awhile. Well, that’s at least what the others do. My point being that the expired learn from the expired, but that’s tricky. I could listen to myself, still claiming to anybody that would hear that I didn’t fall, I was pushed over the balcony at the Sunset Beach Hotel in Montego Bay. And I can’t say shut your trap, Artie Jennings, because every morning I wake up having to put my pumpkin-smashed head back together. And even as I talk now I can hear how I sounded then, can you dig it, dingledoodies? meaning that the afterlife is just not a happening scene, not a groovy shindig, Daddy-O, see those cool cats on the mat? They could never dig it, and there’s nothing to do but wait for the man that killed me, but he won’t die, he only gets older and older and trades out wives for younger and younger and breeding a whole brood of slow-witted boys and running the country down into the ground.

Dead people never stop talking and sometimes the living hear. Sometimes he talks back if I catch him right as his eyes start to flicker in his sleep, talks until his wife slaps him. But I’d rather listen to the longer dead. I see men in split breeches and bloody longcoats and they talk, but blood comes out of their mouths and good heavens that slave rebellion was such ghastly business and that queen has of course been of bloody awful use ever since the West India Company began their rather shoddy decline compared to the East and why are there so many negroes taking to sleeping so unsoundly wherever they see fit and confound it all I seem to have misplaced the left half of my face. To be dead is to understand that dead is not gone, you’re in the flatness of the deadlands. Time doesn’t stop. You watch it move but you are still, like a painting with a Mona Lisa smile. In this space a three-hundred-year-old slit throat and two-minute-old crib death is the same.

If you don’t watch how you sleep, you’ll find yourself the way the living found you. Me, I’m lying on the floor, my head a smashed pumpkin with my right leg twisted behind the back and my two arms bent in a way that arms aren’t supposed to bend and from high up, from the balcony I look like a dead spider. I am up there and down here and from up there I see myself the way my killer saw me. The dead relive a motion, an action, a scream and they’re there again just like that, 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.

Nobody falls that way without being pushed. I know. And I know how it feels and looks, a body that falls fighting air all the way down, grabbing on to clumps of nothing and begging once, just once, just goddamn once, Jesus, you sniveling son of a mongrel bitch, just once that air gives a grip. And you land in a ditch five feet deep or a marble-tiled floor sixteen feet down, still fighting when the floor rises up and smashes into you because it got tired of waiting for blood. And we’re still dead but we wake up, me a crushed spider, him a burned cockroach. I have no memory of coffins.

Listen.

Living people wait and see because they fool themselves that they have time. Dead people see and wait. I once asked my Sunday school teacher, if heaven is the place of eternal life, and hell is the opposite of heaven, what does that make hell? A place for dirty little red boys like you, she said. She’s still alive. I see her, at the Eventide Old Folks Home getting too old and too stupid, not knowing her name and talking in so soft a rasp that nobody can hear that she’s scared of nightfall because that’s when the rats come for her good toes. I see more than that. Look hard enough or maybe just to the left and you see a country that was the same as I left it. It never changes, whenever I’m around people they are exactly as I had left them, aging making no difference.

The man who was father of a nation, father to me more than my own, cried like a sudden widow when he heard I had died. You never know when people’s dreams are connected to you before you’re gone and then there’s nothing to do, but watch them die in a different way, slow, limb by limb, system by system. Heart condition, diabetes, slow-killing diseases with slow-sounding names. This is the body going over to death with impatience, one part at a time. He will live to see them make him a national hero and he will die the only person thinking he had failed. That’s what happens when you personify hopes and dreams in one person. He becomes nothing more than a literary device.

This is a story of several killings, of 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.

The first, he screams his tonsils out but the scream stops right at the gate of his teeth because they have gagged him and it tastes like vomit and stone. And someone has tied his hands tight behind his back but they feel loose because all the skin has rubbed off and blood is greasing the rope. He’s kicking with both legs because right is tied to left, kicking the dirt rising five feet, then six, and he cannot stand because it’s raining mud and dirt and dust to dust and rocks. One rock claps his nose and another bullets his eye and it’s erupting and he’s screaming but the scream runs right to the tip of his mouth then back down like reflux and the dirt is a flood that’s rising and rising and he cannot see his toes. Then he’ll wake up and he’s still dead and he won’t tell me his name.

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