Russell Banks' technically sophisticated "the Book of Jamaica" stakes claim to one of our most serious and urgent themes: the confrontation between white man and black. Like many novels exploring racial and cultural clashes, it reveals more about the white culture it springs from than the black culture it faces.
"The Book of Jamaica" reverses the values found in Joseph Conrad's novella of white and black, "Heart of Darkness." Banks' unnamed hero, western civilization -- personified in the novel's opening segment by Errol Flynn as a demonic murderer -- is a moral monster responsible for the world's rape and desecration. In seeking salvation -- or at least an end to alienation, dread and despair -- the hero pours his energies into "going native," an image of moral depravity for Conrad but a symbol of moral aspiration for Banks.
The story begins with a 35-year-old college professor vacationing in Jamaica. Disgusted by the smugness, greed and cruelty of the island's wealthy white society, the professor decides to despise the members of that group "and to love a people I might never understand and definitely would never become."
He travels into the backwaters of Jamaican life and takes up with a colony of Maroons. Descendants of slaves who rebelled against their Spanish masters, then fought a hundred years war against the British, they have managed to preserve and a develop their own culture. Two tribesmen initiate the questing hero into Maroon society. One, Mr. Mann, tribal secretary of state and shaman, is the pilgrim's Virgil. The other, a Rastafarian named Terron, is a marijuana-aided visionary prophet and guide to the future.
As he changes from researcher to participant, the professor accepts the task of reuniting two Maroon colonies geographically isolated for generations. tBut the planned meeting collapses in failure. His friends prove false; the only gain is more isolation. The professor has failed to fine the acceptance -- or authenticity -- he craved from the black community.
The tale is told through an elaborate and tricky technical patterning. Since intellectual notions dictate the patterns, the book is a species of metaphysical novel. Banks even indulges in the metaphysical conceit: "Channel markers . . . flashed like sudden insights, their locations forgotten as soon as the flash had passed, only to appear seconds later seen as if for the first time." (I hope this technique Banks lives up to repu- [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] the experience of thinkers than of sea captains.)
But the most distinctive feature of the novel is Banks' rigorous exploitation of point of view. A melange of voices results from the novel's medium-is-the-message message: "You will see what you want to see." Shifts in point of view define the structure and specify the stages in the hero's progress. With this technique banks lives up to reputation as an experimenter, gained for him by his earlier works, particularly the collection, "The New World," which also brings together Yankee and Jamaican.
Like the now nearly forgotten metaphysical poets, Banks writes for a coterie. His novel takes as its audience the graduate seminar and the distinguished guest lecturer. Students of "The Book of Jamaica" will need a working knowledge of Levi-Strauss' "Structural Anthropology" and have a taste for dialectical analysis.
Banks deserves praise for the novel's weight of thought; he has read widely and pondered long. His novel has much in common with the "post-modernist" fictions of writers such as John Barth and Thomas Pychon. Partisans of such novels probably will praise Banks' fierce honesty, forgive (and justify) the novel's self-conscious sermonizing. Those of the opposite party will condem it, believing authors who spend their energies recasting their erudition in elaborate formal patterns cannot be writing every word with conviction.