THE BOOK OF JAMAICA by Russell Banks
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Banks, as you can tell from his title, seems to want this to be the book about Jamaica. He lets his unnamed New Hampshire writer-narrator miss nothing about the island: the obeah voodoo, the styles and economic determinants of reggae, Errol Flynn's shadowy part in the island's history, the ganga fields, the Rastafarians, and, most interesting of all (to us and the narrator), the Maroons--mountain people brought originally from Africa as freemen who later fought the British and uphold to this day a semi-autonomous polity on the island. But as the narrator goes about being soaked with these exotic informations, you're aware of reading a book about Jamaica, a brilliant travel book that's passing itself off as fiction. Don't, however, give up on Banks too soon. Because eventually the narrator really starts getting involved: chauffeuring a group of Maroons and Rastas to another town; being called ""Johnny"" by them and being accepted; mystifying his wife and children, who eventually move back to New England without him. And then the book settles its grip and proves to be a recognizable Russell Banks novel--as the narrator seeks total immersion in strange, strange Jamaica almost as a Jesuitical test to prove that one can see and feel and even understand. . . but still not ""know."" Jamaica, then, becomes almost beside the point, the title an irony--just as the malign, spooky centralness of Bank's last book, Hamilton Stark, was a character we never actually saw. To be lost and brave enough to be found by anybody and anything: this is the exercise the narrator puts to himself, and it can be very scary--a less lurid and more sinuous book than Naipaul's somewhat comparable Guerrillas. But Banks, always a slow-pressurizer, is at his most pokey and gradual here--so only especially alert and trusting readers will be likely to allow for Banks' risky timing and get the benefits of this sneaky, dazzling, strangely self-defeating novel.

Pub Date: March 21st, 1980
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin