John Crow’s Devil

John Crow’s Devil
by Marlon James
Published by Akashic Books

In the Jamaican town of Gibbeah, all is not well. The village priest is a drunk they’ve dubbed the Rum Preacher, and the devil’s work roams as freely as the vultures. John Crow’s Devil is rife with the black birds, which seem inextricable from the festering morality of this forsaken community. Enter a smarmy man from Kingston called the Apostle York, who drags the former priest from his pulpit and leaves him in a haunted river to rot. First-time novelist James drenches us in Christian symbols, as the river becomes the Rum Preacher’s baptism and subsequent rebirth. While the Apostle slowly convinces the congregation to loathe the word Jesus, to murder cattle farmers, to attack visitors and destroy the only bridge into town, cows are born with heads turned backwards, and strange murders of crows congregate on rooftops and in yards. James weaves a dark, engaging tale from this mix of magic realism and religious literalism. While there are a few unnecessary distractions from the story — sexual organs are mentioned a bit too frequently, and the narrative is often recounted in an awkward-to-read Jamaican patois — in the end it’s a remarkably solid debut novel, promising much from a young and talented writer.

January 9, 2006 – Matthew Kressel (courtesy Earthling Magazine).