THE LUNATIC By Anthony C. Winkler Lyle Stuart. 225 pp. $7.95 NO TELEPHONE TO HEAVEN By Michelle Cliff E.P. Dutton. 211 pp. $17.95
UNTIL RECENTLY, the several chains of English-speaking islands stretching east from the Bahamas to Trinidad and west to Central America were outposts of the British Empire; creatively, the mecca for the islands' artists was of course London, as Barcelona was for the Latin Americans. Forget New York. New York was not only a closed shop, it was, as all loyal subjects of the Crown knew, a vulgar upstart. The disdain was reciprocated. The Caribbean islanders and their nations were perceived in Manhattan as unsophisticated provincials: naive, small and black, traits better suited to welterweight boxers than promising prose-writers. They were shunned as primitive novelty writers incapable of serious appeal, with an underdeveloped literature composed mostly of quaint folk tales or colonial manners. Only V.S. Naipaul dodged the stereotype.
Today, however, independence movements, immigration trends, geopolitics and nuclear-age tourism have wiped the slate clean. Vacationing Americans swarm south, returning home with varying degrees of raised consciousness; millions of West Indians now live in the States; and editors appear more willing to gamble on ferreting out the 10,000-member community of readers a book must have as a bottom line. More importantly, a cadre of island-born e'migre's -- Derek Walcott from St. Lucia, Paule Marshall from Barbados, Jamaica Kincaid from Antigua, Michael Thelwell from Jamaica -- have earned considerable reputations as North American writers without abandoning their indigenous voices. Overall, at least a dozen Caribbean titles have been published in the U.S. in the past year; look for another cluster this summer. Of the latter, two Jamaican-Americans, Anthony C. Winkler and Michelle Cliff, stand out. Both are first-rate novelists and their contributions to the eclectic, if ill-advertised, menu of contemporary American fiction is not slight.
A reader would have difficulty finding two books mining the same vein -- the Janus-faced realities of post-colonial Jamaica -- more opposed in style and tone, character and consequence, than Winkler's The Lunatic, a paperback original, and Cliff's No Telephone To Heaven, her fourth book. Taken together, however, the novels bridge the explosive dichotomy of all West Indian experience: sinful paradise, carefree Babylon. In this part of the Americas, descriptions of place are inevitably oxymoronic, inflamed with both love and bitterness, laughter and blood, sensuality and hate, ecstasy and pain..
Winkler, whose first book, The Painted Canoe, was published in his homeland before it migrated to the States, is Jamaica's Rabelais. You can't hold The Lunatic in your hands for long without bolts of laughter knocking it to the floor. It's by far the funniest book I've read in a decade, although its ribald atmosphere is sprayed with the pepper-gas of aggressive social satire, and the author never relaxes his hilarious examination of the island's legion of taboos. Perceptions of female and male, black and white, developed and undeveloped, the mad and the sane, are acid-stripped to their original surface of moral ignorance.
What makes this enlightened comic journey possible is two of the most cleverly imagined characters in contemporary fiction. Winkler's lunatic is a ragged black madman, a "woefully shredded" wanderer compelled to recite his thousand names -- Aloysius Gossamer Longshoreman Technocracy . . . Iron-Curtain Linkage Colonialistic . . .: the nomenclature of Jamaica's confusion -- every time he is required to identify himself. Aloysius is an unwilling celibate, tormented for many years that "no woman would permit him to put to her the feverish arguments that man is born to put to woman." Instead, they throw stones, laugh in his face, sic dogs on him, summon a constable.
What invades the hungry, womanless world of Aloysius' madness and transforms it is a tourist, a Berliner by the name of Inga Schmidt. Inga is one of the radical left's clear-eyed avengers, an assassin of the status quo, a gal who claims terrorist merit badges for handiwork in Rome and Paris. She is a fearless practitioner of both martial and libidinal arts: "New kind of woman dis."
New kind of woman indeed. Inga is strong and violent, thick as a tree stump, her eyes flaring with a disrespect for history. God only knew, we are told, if she was even a real woman or something worse. But she hires the lunatic as a guide and they roar around the island on a motorcycle, scandalizing everybody. Even the dogs mutter at Aloysius, wondering what a madman is doing with a white woman. Soon enough, the German breaks his long spell of sexual abstinence but her appetite is monstrous and Aloysius
inadequate performance the first time around earns him a beating.
Booted from her room for outrageous behavior, she moves into the jungle with Aloysius, alarming residents throughout the mountain parish, "for a madman who lived like an animal in the bush to suddenly find himself shacked up with a tourist woman only encouraged other men to go mad."
Since Aloysius is demented, we expect all manner of foolishness from him, but above and beyond his madness is a profoundly rational sense of decency, and there is an extraordinary grace and tenderness throughout The Lunatic that eases us along with the magical suspension of a fairytale -- in this instance, a lusty fairytale -- without ever diminishing the realness of events. And it is that same evenhanded tenderness that leads us to admit, despite his complicity in a criminal act, the abiding sanity to be found in Aloysius. The overriding madness is that everybody in Jamaica pays dearly for the crimes of the past and, in so doing, suffocates the present with the same pathetically familiar mistakes.
The logic of both novels cues on racial and class dynamics and both plots head toward a righteous violence. But the vision of The Lunatic is magnanimous and healing -- a madman champions mercy. No Telephone To Heaven pursues a merciless purification as though it were an ancient ritual, seeking the dawn of a new order on the bloody, emptied field of the old.
Michelle Cliff's novel is an unrelenting tragedy, the portrait of an increasingly militant Eve demanding repatriation to the Garden of Eden. The story of the fragmented central character, Clare Savage, a woman who (like the author herself) grew up in Jamaica and the United States and was educated in London, is told with the tainted, bruised worldliness of the refugee, shuffling self-destructively between races, cultures and relative truths.
Clare is the prone-to-sunburn product of a miscegenation conducted over centuries, the descendant of slaves and landowners, daughter of a dark-skinned mother and a quick-to-pass father. Upon the death of her grandmother, she is taken from the idyllic Jamaica of her childhood and lost in a racially divided United States, the America of the late 1950s when the civil rights movement was but thin smoke rising on the wind. Clare's father gets his wish for a new life in Brooklyn, but only after denouncing his rich racial heritage. Kitty, his wife, has no choice in the matter, given her deeper pigmentation, her earthier accent, her longing for the food in the immigrant markets of Bedford-Stuyvesant. "Her point of reference -- the place which explained the world to her -- would always be her island." Kitty openly suffers the bigotry and cold otherness of the land of opportunity. Finally, defeated, she "cuts the cotta" with her husband. The phrase refers to divorce among slaves, "slicing the device on which their burdens balance," and Kitty returns to Jamaica with her youngest, darker daughter.
Clare is left behind to look after her father and herself, motherless, tribeless, "white chocolate" in a nation where her father will not permit her sympathy for black children killed in a Sunday school bombing to surface. After her mother dies, reminding her daughter in a final letter to "someday help your people," Clare begins a "life-alone" in London, a city of nostalgic textures for a girl brought up with an image of a mother country across the sea. Reading Jane Eyre, she recognizes herself in the Creole Bertha: "Captive . . . Mixture . . . Confused . . . Jamaican. All Bertha. All Clare." The implied literary lineage is not unmerited: Charlotte Bronte , Jean Rhys, Michelle Cliff.
At the University of London, Clare begins to develop an intellectual foundation for her sense that geography is destiny; "bettering herself," however, does not change the fact that she is, as always, placeless, unwanted, undefined, and so she pulls up her shallow London roots and roams Europe with a black Vietnam vet, who mocks her for her interest in his soldiering past. Suppose it was Jamaica instead of Southeast Asia, babe. What would you think of me then? Abandoned in Paris, Clare returns, as she is fated, to Jamaica, carrying an infection that will render her sterile, incapable of motherhood but bearing a maternal instruction. Home to Jamaica, a sandbox for affluent tourists and a stage-set for Hollywood where, finally, she must make her moral choices.
No Telephone To Heaven is structurally ambitious, often innovative, making tangible through its form a vivid, spiralling tension between past and present; the narrative's ending, like history in hindsight, is clearly evident in the beginning. Cliff also takes refreshing liberties with language, successfully synthesizing standard and provincial English, sprinkling curry into the daily fare. Her poetic abilities shine a magnificent light where she works to expose the hidden reservoir of magic buried under her characters' lives.
But there is no magic in modern Jamaica, and transcendence is merely linguistic. Only rats are in residence in the house of Jamaica; only exterminators can get them out. Unfortunately, Cliff's incarnations of exploitation, the bad guys (primarily Americans) are caricatures, one-dimensional buffoons. However much history and current events might justify the shots the author fires, she frequently fails to earn them through the imperatives of her story. The denouement of the book has a hollow ring: symbols, not characters, wage a war of beauty over evil, and the author's credibility fractures when she over-invests typically shallow people with surreal ugliness and stupidity.
But these are minor lapses. In terms of the book's larger vision, Michelle Cliff, like Anthony Winkler, has given the literature of the Americas a triumph of artistic integration, a hard-won harmony between the political and the personal, between realism and the mysteries of the spirit. Both writers have harvested singular worlds out of the complexities of our times. How many other books will offer the summer's audience as much as these two? Very few.
Bob Shacochis' collection of stories, "Easy in the Islands," received the American Book Award for first fiction in 1985.