Sat | Sep 23, 2017

A Serious Winkler

Published:Thursday | September 24, 2015 | 9:00 AMMel Cooke
Jamaican-born novelist Anthony Winkler.

At Calabash 2009, held in Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth, when Kwame Dawes read the bios of writers in a particularly popular session, Anthony Winkler's name was last. The other persons were Staceyann Chin and Edward Seaga, as Calabash followed the alphabetical order of surnames in introducing the authors.

The loudest applause was for Winkler and Dawes remarked "comedy always wins out".

And Winkler did read a funny story first in a pair about his time as a Cornwall College student. Greasy Leg was about schoolboys being conned by an enterprising woman who collected from the sexual novices for intercourse, but instead sold them a rub-up between her lubricated thighs.

The second story, though, was not that humorous, as Winkler read about a housemaster nicknamed 'Monkey Mac' who caned him mercilessly at least once a week and occasionally delivered a double.

As I wrote in the 2009 story, "nothing Winkler tried to appease him worked, and he concluded that it was because he was white, going into discussions of class that centred around the difference between Cornwall Beach, where Monkey Mac swam and Doctor's Cave Beach, where Winkler and his family went to swim in MoBay. "Though we swam in the same sea, we walked on different beaches," Winkler said, concluding that he was whipped for a panoply of privileges accidentally inherited by birth."

grinning

I did not write extensively about the audiences' reaction and do not remember much about it, save for there being far less laughter than there was for Greasy Leg.

In the immediate aftermath of Winkler's death at 73 years old on Friday, September 18, I feel it safe to hazard a guess that many who have read one or more of his books (or heard him read from a novel or short story), or have seen The Lunatic film done from his book of the same name, will be grinning their heads off. Not that they are happy he is dead, of course, but as is customary, once the initial news of someone's death has been absorbed, we react to their memory.

And Winkler (or Wrinkler, as I have heard quite a few people call him) has caused and, through his books, will continue to provoke many a laughter wrinkle, and a twinkle in the eye. However, we stand the risk of missing his seriousness, to the detriment of our experiencing the richness of his interrogation of Jamaican society.

Plus, there was his wonderful focus on sexuality, a subject always good for a few titters (and titties, too), and a healthy sprinkling of Jamaican fabric (as in claats).

In the few Winkler books I have read, from Baps the storekeeper finding himself on the way to heaven in a ram jam minibus in The Duppy, through to Busha cussing a blue streak in court close to the end of The Lunatic,. I have had many a laugh to the writing of 'Missa Wrinkler'. Still, no one could miss his wry looks at the folly of exalted notions of spirituality in The Duppy, the lunacy of what is considered sane living in The Lunatic, or the search for an elusive place called home for the educated and light of hue (not necessarily together or in that order) during the tumultous period of the 1970s in, Going Home to Teach.

Then there was the empathy with a poor man's struggle to wrest a living from nature in The Painted Canoe (he told the story behind that character coming from his youth).

patty shop scene

While the self-contradictory attitude of many a black Jamaican towards their African ancestry is stated outright in The Great Yacht Race (which has the most hilarious tale of a jacket being bestowed upon a man who thought he had bed the household help and had his neighbour help frighten the beJesus out of her, obeah style, only to realise that the product of the union looked suspiciously like said faux obeahman), it is a patty shop scene which really brought home Winkler's seriousness to me.

While I do not remember which book the particular patty shop encounter was in (I am tending towards Going Home to Teach), it made a strong impression on me. A light-skin Jamaican man is in the line to procure a couple of patties when two Jamaicans of a much darker shade than him argued about whose skin was paler. They turned to him as a well-qualified assessor of skin shade, but he demurred by pretending not to speak English.

But when it was time to order, he had forgotten about his foreign face and put in his patty request in flawless Jamaican. The men were stunned, then amused, remarking that that is how smart the white people are and why they will always rule. (I really hope I have got the story somewhat right. If it nuh guh suh, it near guh suh - which is good enough for this purpose, though not for others).

And I thought that this is what being an outsider in the society you are from comes down to - not being able to call out for 'two patty, a coco bread and an orange juice' without being betrayed by your native tongue.

The most recent book by Winkler I have read is The Family Mansion, the tale of a young white man's time in Jamaica during a period of slavery. It is a sad, sad text, even though there are some hilarious sex scenes (like when a widow gets a grip on a prospective

second husband, declares him too large and promptly announces that she will not marry him). In Jamaica, the white plantation workers got busy raping the slave women and reproducing

mulattoes, the well-endowed man, whom the widow refused, was dubbed 'donkey hood' by the African women and a slave who fell in love with him sacrificed herself for his safety.

The very sad thing is, when the book's main character returns to England, how quickly the memory of the period of his life in 'the islands' fades, a reflection of how peripheral the colonies and Third World have been to the countries which have extracted wealth from them. In the uneven relationship, a seismic event in this side of the world is hardly a tremor in colder climes.

I do not know how much of a shake-up Winkler's death is in the cooler climes that the writer made his home is, outside of the Caribbean community in Atlanta. Neither can I assess the extent to which it is a significant event in Jamaica, although more so than many writers his work has found purchase outside a small literary circle.

However, it is occasion for a rereading and full reading (for people like me who have not read as much as required) of Winkler as more than a joker.

melville.cooke@gleanerjm.com