Title: Kingston Noir
Editor: Colin Channer
Publisher: Akashic Books, 2012
Reviewer: Dr Glenville Ashby
Kingston Noir is an eclectic and gritty melange of tales that sears the imagination, living up to its boiler room genre. Writers, one after another, present a literary canvas of a Kingston that is hardly comely. Yet, it pulsates and magnetises the reader. Sure, it is edgy, predictably unsettling - be it from the sweltering heat that Ian Thompson bemoans in A Grave Understanding, or, from the hooliganism of Soft Paw and bwoy-dem who terrorise residents in Kei Miller's The White Gyal and the Camera. Not that Lil Croc and his gang in Christopher Farley's crime thriller, 54-46 (That's My Number), are not equally disturbing. Interestingly, it is in this tale that the reader is mesmerised by the island's argot. "Wa a gwaan?" says one character, quickly followed by the response: "Im two ears hard," ... "A good mek 'im tengle up ... dat deh a fi uno!").
Noir delivers crisp snapshots of Kingston neighbourhoods that are gnawing realities of an existence that is void of justice and equanimity. Perennial social problems seep through every page, and are deftly addressed with bewitching rhyme and cadence.
In Marlon James' Immaculate, sexism dogs the one adept character capable of finding a resolution in this gripping murder mystery. Self-loathing, sexual identity and homophobia, fuelled by that irascible slur: "chunkybatty," are rooted in the protagonist's fatalism in Thomas Glave's, Leighton, Leigh Anne Norbrook.
Police excess, corruption, and incompetence rear their head in 54-46 (That's my number), which interestingly takes place in Trench town. And in Kwame Dawes' My Lord, sexual flirtations and levity are marred by surreptitious acts of betrayal and murder.
Yes, murder, is ubiquitous. As Davis writes: "We Jamaicans are truly murderous people. Can't deny that. People dead in this country for the simplest reason. You pay somebody five thousand Jamaican dollars - what is like ten dollars American ... and he will kill a person for you, no question asked." Despite such a damning indictment, he concedes, "I love this country." Kingston shines - in spurts: "Man, look at Kingston, it is so pretty from here, all them light right out to the sea." according to one character in that wrenching plot, Immaculate.
This is the stark ambivalence of Noir. But darkness wins out - unrepentant - suffocating any sliver of light. Rape and murder (especially in Chris Bani's haunting Sunrise); battery and duplicity (in Patricia Powell's Tomcat Beretta); vile vengeance (in Colin Channer's Monkey Man); and madness (in Marcia Douglas' One-Girl Half Way Tree Concert), reinforce the underlying motif of this narrative. This is Kingston, an existential nightmare and psychological labyrinth, perfectly encapsulated in Thompson's soulful, A Grave Undertaking.
Throughout, the writers - like griots of yore - showcase their range, replete with angst and urgency - even mastering that rare ability to merge with the archetypical wretchedness of their environment. It is a winning formula that reveals both the resplendence and depravity of the human spirit. It is a compelling message. And in this scenario where art imitates life, the question: "Can Kingston be salvaged?" is ever present. In the end, Kingston Noir proves its worth as a quintessential piece of West Indian literature - rich, artistic, timeless, and above all, draped in unmistakable realism.
Rating: Highly Recommended