Mr. Potter: A Novelby Jamaica Kincaid
The story of an ordinary man, his century, and his home: "Kincaid's most poetic and affecting novel to date" (Robert Antoni, The Washington Post Book World)
Jamaica Kincaid's first obssession, the island of Antigua, comes vibrantly to life under the gaze of Mr. Potter, an illiterate taxi chauffeur who makes his living along the roads that pass through/p>/b>
The story of an ordinary man, his century, and his home: "Kincaid's most poetic and affecting novel to date" (Robert Antoni, The Washington Post Book World)
Jamaica Kincaid's first obssession, the island of Antigua, comes vibrantly to life under the gaze of Mr. Potter, an illiterate taxi chauffeur who makes his living along the roads that pass through the only towns he has ever seen and the graveyard where he will be buried. The sun shines squarely overhead, the ocean lies on every side, and suppressed passion fills the air.
Ignoring the legacy of his father, a poor fisherman, and his mother, who committed suicide, Mr. Potter struggles to live at ease amid his surroundings: to purchase a car, to have girlfriends, and to shake off the encumbrance of his daughters—one of whom will return to Antigua after he dies and tell his story with equal measures of distance and sympathy.
In Mr. Potter, Kincaid breathes life into a figure unlike any other in contemporary fiction, an individual consciousness emerging gloriously out of an unexamined life.
Ever since she made her name with stories published in The New Yorker in the late '70s, Kincaid has never tried hard to win over readers. Whether penning nonfiction about her native West Indies, as in the brilliant diatribe A Small Place, or turning out incantatory and angry fiction, Kincaid doesn't strive to entertain. Reading her, like listening to the thorniest of jazz, is not always easy.
Mr. Potter, her new novel about a father and daughter, is her most difficult fiction yet. The book is astonishing and baffling, infuriating and gorgeous. On the island of Antigua, Kincaid's birthplace and the setting of all of her fiction, Mr. Potter lives seventy unremarkable years. He casts no shadows, forms attachments to no one, doesn't even acknowledge many of the daughters he fathers out of wedlock. One such daughter, Elaine, tells his story, and it's her story, tooof loss, alienation and anger. Toward the novel's end, she mourns their lifelong separation. "And he left my life thenforever, his back disappearing through the door of the house in which I lived, his back disappearing up the street on which stood the house in which I lived; and his appearance was like his absence, leaving my surface untroubled, causing not so much as the tiniest ripple, leaving only an empty space inside that is small when I am not aware of its presence and large when I am."
In this audacious novel, we're given a main character with whom it's nearly impossible to sympathize. There's precious little action and less dialogue. Even synopsizing the story is tough. A chauffeur, Mr. Potter drives all day under the blazing Caribbean sun; he hardly interacts with his employer, Mr. Shoul, a cipher from "Lebanon or Syria or someplace near there." Very briefly, Potter's life haphazardly intersects with those of a husband and wife in exile from World War II. We learn a little of his father, a Hemingwayesque fisherman disappointed by the sea. We learn a bit less about the women with whom he produces offspring. He breathes; he dies.
And yet Kincaid does manage to summon up in us a genuine pathos for the man and, more so, his daughter. The author does this with word torrents that build and crest, plunging us mercilessly into the emptiness of Potter's life. The book begins, for example, with a 150-word sentence, of which a short excerpt captures the tone: "And that day, the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky, and it shone in its usual way so harshly bright, making even the shadows pale, making even the shadows seek shelter; that day the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky...." Again and again, Kincaid hammers thusly away. If the reader gives in, he or she may emergeexhausted, but with some sense of the emotional constriction, the oppression, the weariness of these characters' lives.
In an interview with Mother Jones in 1997, Kincaid insisted, "I feel it's my duty to make everyone a little less happy." She's a provocateur, an upsetter, a writer who issues a wake-up call: Everything is not just fine. A lyrical engineer, Kincaid blends the personal and political (Potter is less an individual than a symbol of colonial oppression) with fiction and memoir (before she became Jamaica Kincaid in 1973, she was Elaine Potter Richardson; that her novel's narrator shares the name only underscores Kincaid's artful confusion).
Torn from Antigua at seventeen and apprenticed as an au pair in New York, Kincaid published her first book, the story collection At the Bottom of the River, in 1983. Now she lives in Bennington, Vermont, with her husband, a composer, and she teaches at Harvard. It's a far cry from the poverty of her island beginnings. Still, throughout her career she's sounded a keynote of defiance, one whose source is always Antigua, her parents' abandonment and the legacy of colonial shame. Mr. Potter is yet one more piece of this dissonant music. It unsettles and it seethes. Yet within it there is a kind of incandescence, a certain beauty, a strange fascination with cruelty and pain.
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Read an Excerpt
By Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2002 Jamaica Kincaid
All rights reserved.
And that day, the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky, and it shone in its usual way so harshly bright, making even the shadows pale, making even the shadows seek shelter; that day the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky, but Mr. Potter did not note this, so accustomed was he to this, the sun in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky; if the sun had not been in its usual place, that would have made a great big change in Mr. Potter's day, it would have meant rain, however briefly such a thing, rain, might fall, but it would have changed Mr. Potter's day, so used was he to the sun in its usual place, way up above and in the middle of the sky. Mr. Potter breathed in his normal way, his heart was beating in its normal way, up and down underneath the covering of his black skin, up and down underneath his white knitted cotton vest next to his very black skin, up and down underneath his plainly woven white cotton shirt that was on top of the knitted cotton vest which lay next to his skin; so his heart breathed in its normal way. And he put on his trousers and in the pocket of his trousers he placed a white handkerchief; and all this was as normal as the way his heart beat; all this, his putting on his clothes in just that way, as normal as the way his heart beat, the heart beating normally and the clothes reassuring to Mr. Potter and to things beyond Mr. Potter, things that did not know they needed such reassurance.
Walking to Mr. Shoul's garage to begin his day of sitting in Mr. Shoul's car and taking passengers to and fro, to and fro (he was a chauffeur, he did not mind being a chauffeur), Mr. Potter took shelter from the sun by walking through narrow streets and alleys. He saw a dog, her breasts distended and swollen, her stomach distended and swollen, lying in the shade of a tree native to some of the dry vast plains of Africa, but he did not think that this dog, pregnant and weary from carrying her pups, seeking shelter from that sun, was a reflection of any part of him, not even in the smallest way; and Mr. Potter saw a man sitting in his doorway and this man was blind but his ears were most sensitive to the sounds of footsteps coming toward him or footsteps going away from him, and when he heard the sounds of feet coming toward him he got ready to beg the owner of the footsteps for money; this man knew the sound of Mr. Potter's footsteps and he had never asked the owner of those footsteps for anything of any kind. And seeing the blind man sitting in the doorway with his beggar's cup, seeing the blind man expelling into the ground a mouthful of the thick, sticky white phlegm that had slowly gathered in his throat, Mr. Potter did not think that any part of him was reflected in this sight before him. Going toward Mr. Shoul's garage, Mr. Potter saw a boy going to school, he saw most of the garments one family owned hanging on a string of wire, being dried in that way. He saw a woman smoking a cigarette, he smelled the stink coming from some gray-colored liquid that lay stagnant in the gutter, he saw some birds sitting on a fence, and none of this reminded him of himself in any way and that was only because everything he saw was so closely bound to him; between him and all that he saw there was no distance of any kind. And so Mr. Potter entered Corn Alley and walked down it and then left it altogether, and Mr. Potter turned onto Nevis Street and he was then at Mr. Shoul's garage. Mr. Shoul was not there and did not need to be. And on the day Mr. Potter met Dr. Weizenger the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky, shining in its usual way, so harsh and bright, and making the shadows pale and making the shadows themselves seek shelter and causing Mr. Potter to make his way to Mr. Shoul's garage through a passage of narrow alleys and shaded backstreets; on such a day Mr. Potter met Dr. Weizenger.
In Mr. Shoul's garage there were three cars and these cars all belonged to Mr. Shoul, but Mr. Shoul himself was not in the garage with his cars. Mr. Shoul was upstairs in his own house above the garage where the three cars were, and Mr. Shoul by then, that is by the time Mr. Potter arrived in the garage where there were the three cars, had eaten eggs and oat porridge and bread that had been buttered and cheese and had drunk cups of Lyons tea and had said unkind things in an unkind way to a woman who washed his family's clothes and then said unkind things in an unkind way to the woman who had just made his breakfast. These two women were in no way related to him, he did not know them at all, they, like Mr. Potter, were the people he had lived among since leaving that place so far away, the Lebanon or Syria, someplace like that, barren and old. And in the Lebanon or Syria, that old, barren place, Mr. Shoul's breakfast would not have been like this, abundant and new (the eggs had been laid just the day before and the entire breakfast was warm and carefully cooked), but Mr. Shoul could adjust to anything and did adjust to everything as it came his way, and many things came his way, good and bad, and he stayed when it was good and left soon after things got bad. But now things were good and Mr. Shoul stayed at his breakfast, for Mr. Potter was in the garage, wiping down the cars, starting with the one he, Mr. Potter, would drive that day, the one he drove every day, and then wiping down the car that his friend Mr. Martin would drive and then wiping down the car Mr. Joseph would drive. Mr. Joseph was not a friend of Mr. Potter's, Mr. Joseph was only an acquaintance.
And on that day Mr. Potter drove Mr. Shoul's car to the jetty to await a large steamer coming from some benighted place in the world, someplace far away where there had been upheavals and displacements and murder and terror. Mr. Potter was not unfamiliar with upheavals and displacements and murder and terror; his very existence in the world in which he lived had been made possible by such things, but he did not dwell on them and he could not dwell on them any more than he could dwell on breathing. And so Mr. Potter met Dr. Weizenger.
And who was Dr. Weizenger? And just who could answer that question accurately, or who could answer that question with any completeness? No one, really, not the same person who could give an accurate account of any single human being on this earth and all that they might be made of. Dr. Weizenger could not give an accurate account of himself, for an accurate account of himself would overwhelm him. But the man named Dr. Weizenger met Mr. Potter on that day, a day like most of Mr. Potter's days: the sun was in the middle of the sky long before midday, and then long after it was midday, so time, as it might be measured by Dr. Weizenger and known to Dr. Weizenger, had a different meaning to Mr. Potter; this was not their first misunderstanding, this was only one of many. Dr. Weizenger was in a new place, but for so many years now Dr. Weizenger was constantly in a new place. For three hundred years he and all that he came from lived in that place once called Czechoslovakia, he and all that he came from lived in its villages, its towns, its cities, its capital, its provinces, and then, without notice, he and all he came from could not live in Czechoslovakia or its environs anymore. And so Dr. Weizenger had been here, there, and everywhere, and now he was in front of Mr. Potter and this would be his final place, his place of rest, which might account for his hatred and lack of sympathy for Mr. Potter (and all who looked like Mr. Potter).
This sentence should begin with Dr. Weizenger emerging, getting off the launch that has brought him from his ship which is lying in the deep part of the harbor, but this is Mr. Potter's life and so Dr. Weizenger must never begin a sentence; I am not making an authorial decision, or a narrative decision, I only say this because it is so true: Mr. Potter's life is his own and no one else should take precedence. And so this sentence, this paragraph, will begin in this way:
When Mr. Potter first saw Dr. Weizenger, Mr. Potter was thinking of a woman, her name was Yvette, who had just died while giving birth to Mr. Potter's first child, a girl named Marigold; this name Marigold was given to the little girl by Yvette's relatives and it had no significance to them whatsoever and it had nothing at all to do with Mr. Potter, he had not had much to do with Yvette in the first place. And when Mr. Potter thought of this woman, Yvette, who had just given birth to his first child with the name of Marigold, he was not thinking of how the world was filled with happiness, he was not thinking of the golden glow that transformed the world when it had first been born, its new light thick with transparency, its wonder, its mystery, its never-to-be- knownness, its frustrations which would lead to anger and how that anger would lead to a blankness and how it was that in such blankness he, Mr. Potter, existed. When Mr. Potter first saw Dr. Weizenger, his very thoughts, the words that came out of his mouth, were "Mr. Shoul sent me" or "Me ah come from Shoul's." And Mr. Potter saw Dr. Weizenger and Dr. Weizenger saw Mr. Potter. And Dr. Weizenger was not thinking of all that he had left behind, not the thousands of years, not the hundreds of years, not even the last moments that were now something called history, he was not thinking of anything really, not even his own present unhappiness, not even the wound in his stomach caused by the turmoil of the world bearing down on the softness beneath the skin covering his belly, causing his mind to go blank at one moment and then the next moment to be filled with images of a childhood so comfortable, and that comfort was an irritation. "Dr. Weizenger," said Dr. Weizenger, releasing his own name into the warm air. Potter, said Mr. Potter to no one but himself. Such a dead man, thought Mr. Potter to himself when he saw Dr. Weizenger ('E dead, 'e dead). Such stupidity, thought Dr. Weizenger to himself when he met Mr. Potter, so much ignorance. And Mr. Potter was ignorant of Dr. Weizenger's ways, for Mr. Potter could not read, and so when Dr. Weizenger asked him to remove his bags from all of the other bags that had been removed from the great big ship and placed in the launch and which were now just lying on the floor of the jetty, Mr. Potter was still. What to do? said Mr. Potter, but only to himself, and he smiled at Dr. Weizenger. The sea, the sea, the sea that was so vast, so vast, and vast again, lay in front of them, Mr. Potter and Dr. Weizenger, and for both of them it held such peril, such dark memories. On Dr. Weizenger's suitcase were the words "Singapore" and "Shanghai" and "Sydney," but Mr. Potter could not read and so did not know what they meant. And on Mr. Potter's face was written "Africa" and "Europe," but Dr. Weizenger had never had to and would never be able (as it turned out) to read the language in which these words were written. And so standing on the jetty and wondering not at the fact that he was alive, but at the fact that something so incomprehensible as Mr. Potter was standing in front of him, and that strange sun which shone without mercy, and was that the same sea, did it have the same name, and had it followed him after taking him to and from the shores of Greece, Singapore, Shanghai, and Sydney (those were only the ports that had taken him in). Dr. Weizenger almost died just then, he almost fell apart like a badly made piece of furniture, the glue not properly applied, but his wife May (and that was her name, May) came and said, "Well!" and she was from England, even better, she was from that thing called the British Empire, and Mr. Potter understood her English and the tone of voice in which she spoke it.
And there was the sea Dr. Weizenger had just left behind, his back was turned to it and there was the sea Mr. Potter had so long ago left behind, and yet each day that sea defined his life over and over again. Mr. Potter's father had been a fisherman and he had died after cursing the sea for disappointing him, and none of Mr. Potter's brothers, ten of them, had become fishermen. For Mr. Potter was afraid of the sea and then he hated the sea, so much water it was, so much nothing, and that nothing was only water. Mr. Potter longed to feel superior to the sea, he longed to feel superior to something that had such power over him. His mother had by then died. And, having lived deep in the middle of Europe for many years (as had all he had come from), Dr. Weizenger found the sea mysterious, so much water it was, so uncontainable, not like a river, not like a lake; and with what cruelty the sea had carried him toward displacement and homelessness, and so standing before Mr. Potter and so standing before the sea (the sea was on his left side and the sea was on his right side and the sea was to the back of him as he faced Mr. Potter), Dr. Weizenger was confused, and then angry, and then silent. And May said, "Well!" And the silence of the sea (for the sea is silent and only its actions elicit sounds: wails, screams, cries; and then comes grief, remorse, despair) and her saying "Well!" and Mr. Potter saying "Eh, eh," to nothing in particular, held everything they had known in a tight grip. And this moment held in a tight grip was special and ordinary: for all moments are special and all moments are ordinary and who can make them so?
And Dr. Weizenger looked up and saw the sun: the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky, and it was shining in its usual way, so harsh, so bright, and Dr. Weizenger could hardly see his shadow, it had shortened so, as if his shadow had taken shelter from the heat of the sun, as if his shadow had been erased by the sun, and he felt so alone, for he did not even have his own reflection to offer him comfort, and Dr. Weizenger looked up again and wondered if the sun would always be so, and hoped it would not always be so, the day so bright, the sun so constant, in its place, the brightness of the light from the sun not impeded by clouds or any other interference, natural or unnatural; he hoped for some other days, days that might match a feeling, dark and gloomy days, hazy with cold mist days, days in which the sun would go in and out of huge banks of black clouds; days that might match the internal landscape, such days would match perfectly the way he would feel for the rest of his life. For Dr. Weizenger had seen days in which the sun did not shine in any way, not in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky, not just coming up above the landscape in the morning and not just disappearing on the horizon in the evening; he had seen days that seemed as if thinned-out milk had been used to draw the landscape in swath after swath, as if the person making the sketch of this landscape was in a state of despair and the milkiness that enveloped the atmosphere was not accidental and not deliberate, only just so, just so, all by itself, Dr. Weizenger had thought at the time. And Shanghai and Singapore and Sydney and all the other places Dr. Weizenger had come from or had just passed through, with their smog and fog and air heavy with moisture and the sun not shining with any reliability from day to day, made Dr. Weizenger suspicious of the day he was now in, the day he was now experiencing, the day in which he was meeting Mr. Potter. Dr. Weizenger had come from a place called Prague, but Mr. Potter had never heard of it, and Mr. Potter could not read and so he could not find it on a map; Mr. Potter could easily find a map, for the British Empire was not ashamed to publicize itself, but Mr. Potter could not read, not a map, not anything else.
Excerpted from Mr. Potter by Jamaica Kincaid. Copyright © 2002 Jamaica Kincaid. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author
Jamaica Kincaid's recent books include Talk Stories (FSG, 2001), a volume of her New Yorker writings. In 2000 she was awarded the Prix Fémina Étranger for My Brother (FSG, 1997). She lives in Vermont with her family.
Jamaica Kincaid was born in St. John's, Antigua. Her books include At the Bottom of the River, Annie John, Lucy, The Autobiography of My Mother, and My Brother. She lives with her family in Vermont.
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This is a page turner. I recommend this realistic, smooth flowing, thought provoking novel!