Read an Excerpt
This part of my story begins one evening early in January 1976 in Anchovy, Jamaica, a country village clinging to the hills of St. James Parish about twelve miles south and west of Montego Bay. At that time I was residing in Jamaica for a few months, ostensibly for the purpose of investigating the living conditions and habits of the Maroons, a remnant people who were the direct descendants of slaves who had escaped from their Spanish and then British masters in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and who afterwards from their inaccessible mountain enclaves had successfully conducted a hundred year guerrilla war against the British. When I was not actively researching the daily lives of these people, I had sufficient leisure and interest to involve myself in the daily lives of the more typical Jamaicans who lived all around me, drinking and smoking ganja with them, playing dominoes, arguing politics, and so on. As a result I formed several close friendships with a number of my neighbors.
My closest friendship, however, was with a man named Terron Musgrave who was neither a typical Jamaican nor one of my neighbors. He was a man in his mid-thirties, my own age, and a Maroon, and though during these months he spent fully half his time in Anchovy at my house, he lived in the Maroon village of Nyamkopong, forty miles and three hours' drive away.
Terron was a short man, even diminutive, but extremely muscular, and though he gave the impression of having been packed into his body under great pressure and seemed always about to explode into furious, chaotic activity, when he moved he moved slowly and gracefully with thoughtful,deliberate precision. His skin was dark brown, almost mocha-colored, and his face had been carved by genes and character into the face of a Nigerian king. Because he was a religious man and a member of the Rastafarian sect, he was bearded and wore his hair in long, matted, leonine locks called dreadlocks, and in profile he did indeed resemble a dark male lion, which was as he desired it.
Terron's greatest gift, however, his most remarkable beauty, was his voice and the language it carried. He owned a deep, resonating baritone that came directly from his chest, and his exotic blend of Jamaican English, country patois, and Rastafarian neologism, a poem in any man's mouth, in his became a song, a chanting, rolling, mahogany and birdflight song. Against his, my own voice came to sound like the random banging of oilcans, tinny, empty, erratic, and my language as flat and uninteresting as a sheet metal duct. The comparison inevitably silenced me and my silence usually brought Terron "forward," as he would say, "into speech." He told me of his childhood in Port Antonio where the banana boats of United Fruit were loaded, his youth in the ghettos of Kingston where whole large families lived in refrigerator cartons and abandoned Japanese cars, his years in the back streets of Montego Bay where he had hustled as a middleman between the ganja growers in the hills and the dealers in the Bay, and, for the last seven years, his life among his "ascendants," the Maroons of Nyamkopong, where he himself had become a ganja grower. He told me also of his religion and the experience of his conversion, when he had come "to know I," and the marvelous changes it had wrought in his interior and exterior lives, how it had merged them, made them one holy vessel, like the conversion experience of an early Christian gnostic. His political views, too, he described to me, and they were literally that, views, for he, like all true Rastafarians, was a visionary and believed in prophecy, specifically those of Marcus Garvey and the apocalyptic books of the Christian Bible. We both mistrusted the current Jamaican government, a corrupt, incompetent bunch of ambitious men and women, most of them educated in England, where they had learned to long for the power and wealth of a ruling class and to mouth the socialist rhetoric of the dispossessed masses. But while Terron saw every evidence of their corruption and incompetence as another welcome sign of the fire to come, I saw it merely as another depressing episode in the history of the New World. Evil confirmed and deepened Terron's belief in good; all it did for me was confirm and deepen my pessimism.
The differences between us, it seemed to me, were so radical and thoroughgoing, the vocabulary and syntax of our respective lives so incomprehensible to the other, that what ordinarily should have repelled us in actuality attracted us, drew us together, so that we were like a pair of magnets clamped together, opposite pole to opposite pole. A consequence of this, or so I believed, was that neither of us took the other's descriptions of reality as revealing any reality except that of the teller himself. I believed that we looked into each other, but not through each other, to the world beyond. Almost the way lovers do, each man used the other to learn only about himself. We were utterly opaque surfaces, I thought, but as a mirror is opaque. When we sat out on my terrace in the evenings, watching the sun fall behind the lush green hills, smoking ganja and talking with one another about our beliefs, I perceived only Terron Musgrave and nothing of the world his beliefs had sprung from. This, I thought, had been a deliberate decision on my part, a decision not to translate his words, not to research him, as it were, but simply to give myself over to the contemplation of his voice and language, his profound sincerity, his genuine great-heartedness and sorrow, and his spiritual optimism. I dealt with him as a phenomenon and not a referent, and thus I learned nothing from him of the Maroons, of Rastafarianism, of Jamaican peasant life, of the intricacies of the ganja trade, or even of the geography of the island, subjects he knew too intimately and unselfconsciously to make known to me without my having first to translate him, without my having to put myself into the role of researcher. Then one night, very late, Terron told me of his knowledge of Errol Flynn.