MICHAEL THELWELL's impressive first novel, The Harder They Come, is by no means a cut-and-paste "novelization" of the dazzling Jamaican film so popular in the '70s. "I tried," says Thelwell, "to write if not the novelistic equivalent of the movie then at least the novel from which the film might have been derived were the process reversed, as is more usually the case." Inspired by the movie and throbbing with its catchy, off-beat music, this book takes a fresh and uniquely novelistic approach to the same legend that the movie was based on: It is the tale of Ryhgin, possessed reggae singer and "star-bwai," ganja dealer, dreamer and Kingstom gunman of the '50s whom the cops seemed able neither to catch nor to kill.

This Rhygin started out as Ivanhoe Martin, a black boy brought up by his grandmother, high in the Jamaica hills. His village is orderly, stable in values, rich in tradition. Even so, lured by the twang-voiced emcees on his prized radio, he takes off for Kingstontown, hoping to make it as a raggae star. Like many a greenhorn great with expectations but new in the teeming city, Ivan is shaken dowm by smiling sharpies; in 24 hours he loses all of his inheritance money, his food, even his clothes. He tries to find work, but the city shows him no mercy. Tired and spirit-broken, he enters a church mission home. By day he rehearses with the church choir and does chores, by night he goes to movies at the Rialto and hangs out with boys who carry knives and whose names within the gang suggest their secret identities and codes: Bogart, Peter Lorre, Midnight Cowboy, William Bendix.

Ivan cuts a record, "The Harder They Come," but the record producer, Mr. Hilton (also significantly named), displeased that at first Ivan refused to sell the record for the usual $50, decides not to promote the song: the fiesty boy could make trouble for the Hilton machine. Unable to record, booted out of the church home for flirting with Elsa, the preacher's ward, jailed for cutting a man who tried to steal his bicycle, Ivan turns to selling ganja. When he tries to buck the syndicate and operate independently, he becomes a marked man. "Ivan dead," he tells Elsa. "Rhygin time now." And for a time Rhygin is unstoppable: He's the blue-steel gunslinger about whom the children chant: "Rhygin was here/But 'im jus' disappear/Wid two pint a beer/An' a half-penny pear." And they know his song: "The oppressor is trying to keep me down/making me feel like a clown,/Just when he thinks he' got the battle won/Ah say, 'forgive them Lord, they know not what they done/ Because, the harder they come . . ./ Is the harder they faalll./ One an' aawll. . . ." "The Harder They Come" by Jimmy Cliff (c) 1971 Island Music Ltd.

This is a tale well-tod by Thelwell. Dealing with Jamacia in the throes of sharp transition -- from colonialism toward neo-colonialism; from the relatively independent and stable folk communities like the one Ivan left to the fast, mad world where white coral and even a seat on the beachfront are brought and sold in the tourist trade -- Thelwell uses a flexible idiom. The first section of the novel is appropriately naturalistic, and recalls the eloquently described worlds of Thelwell's apparent models, Andrew Salkey and Chinua Achebe. If in places the narrative ride is burdened with heavily schematic analyses and unneeded explication, elsehwere in the novel's opening chapters the allusions to lore, literature and history are wonderfully woven into the finely textured cloth of the novel. Thelwell's wry humor and his precise description of palpable detail rescue the early pastoral scenes from insincerity or mawkishness. There is no faking here. With sometimes grotesque vividness he describes scenes he must have witnessed, people he must have known. The scene, for instance, in which Ivan finds his grandmother dead in her house, is unforgettably striking:

"She had cleaned and swept the room, changed both beds, put her house in order as though for the coming of an important visitor. The only things marring the order were a small pile of ashes on the floor, where her pipe had fallen from her mouth, and the crumpled and torn page of the Bible lying on her lap. . . . As he got closer he could see more. Despite the signs of preparation, her expression was startled. The eyes wide and emptily staring, mouth gaping slack-jawed in an expression of idiot astonishment, with a dribble of dried spit snaking from its corner and into the crags of her withered neck. Already ants were congregating at the corners of the eyes, a few crawling over the cloudy balls. . . . When his shadow fell across the face, two large flies came buzzing furiously from the open mouth."

We meet Thelwell at his best when Rhygin hits Kingston, and the tale unfurls in a variety of versions and voices, with music and gunfire rocking and rattling through the books' pages. It is in the chaotic city, where mad Ivan becomes the fearless Rhygin, that we overhear the myth fiercely whispered:

"You know Rhygin . . . de singer man . . . Rhygin whose reggae did so dread dat Babylon had was to kill it. Rhygin de rude . . . Rhygin de face man, de dancer man who no woman could refuse . . . Rhygin de mouth man, de word man . . . Which Rhygin? Rhygin de mysterious, none knew whe' him come from . . . Rhygin de dangerous . . . Rhygin de man cutter . . . Rhygin, de bull bucker de duppi conqueror . . . Rhygin who tek de Preacha woman . . . Rhygin, who doan spare nothin' in skirt . . . Rhygin, who tight wid bad Jose an' walk wid a slim Dreadlocks wid holy eyes? Same one -- you no wan' mess wid him. Him alias."

In the back country, Granncy heard Ivan's playmates call him "Rhygin" and she wondered if they knew the name's true meaning: "raging, strong but foolish too, overconfident, not knowing where the limits were . . . In every litter there was always one -- as soon as he could walk good 'im be bring fight to some larger animal." Rhygin is the fearfully alluring trickster and wish-fulfillment badman, the "Johnny-Too-Bad" of raggae music: stylish dresser, talker, lower, singer, religious man obsessed with fighting oppression in this world. He is as distinctively Jamaican as the music itself, which Rhygin calls "the first thing he'd seen that belonged to the youth and the sufferahs. It was roots music, dread music, their own." Inspired by American cowboy movies as well as the Bible, Rhygin is also a hero who transcends national boundaries; he's the tragic trouble-shooter who, against all odds, refuses to give up his dream of freedom and fame. Like a blues hero with rawhide nerves, or a hero in one of Sterling Brown's ballads, when they come for him, he does not hide: "Sen' out you fastes' gun," he shouts, "de bes' man unu have. Sen' 'im out!" Michael Thelwell is an exhilaratingly skillful storyteller, the richness and the pace of whose prose, and the expansiveness of whose vision, mark him as a major new talent.