Robert Antoni has established himself as one of the most innovative voices to emerge from the Caribbean and the Americas. His ambitious third novel, Carnival, takes us on an expedition that stretches from contemporary New York City to the glitter of Trinidadian Carnival, and deep into the island's mountainous interior. Narrator William Fletcher is an aspiring novelist who has come to New York to escape his affluent West Indian roots. A chance meeting in a Greenwich Village bar reunites him with two of his childhood companions: Laurence and the vivacious and stunning Rachel, William's first love. Together, the three make a liquor-soaked pledge to return "home" to Trinidad for Carnival. The festival starts with passion and pleasure, but the Carnival ecstasy slides into a fog of ganja, alcohol, and the endless calypso beat. As William, Rachel, and Laurence journey to a remote area of the rainforest to "cool down" after the festival, the three hope for a secret paradise, hidden "behind God's back," to begin anew. But even here the demons of history, prejudice, and hatred violently intrude, as the novel's startling conclusion forces them to face both the power-and impotence-of human resilience and human love.
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By Robert Antoni
Grove Atlantic, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Robert Antoni
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLaurence de Boissière was once the tennis champion of Oxford. Don't think I'm too highly impressed by that as a tennis title, but it meant something to Laurence. He loved tennis, though he did not go to Oxford to play it. In fact, until he arrived there, it had not even occurred to him that they would have a team. But in a matter of days he had all those English boys running redfaced around the court. This gave him an odd sense of inner satisfaction, which he found he grew to like, although, being extremely well-mannered, and still a little shy, he kept it hidden. And in any case for Laurence the sport was little more than a healthful distraction from his studies. He was really an excellent tennis player. More than that, he was a natural. Beautiful to watch on the court. So talented, the story goes, that his coach at Oxford promptly advised him to give up his degree and go to the States to train as a professional. This old coach had been around, he knew what he was talking about. He had connections, vision. He was an American himself, from a place called Carmel, California, where such things were imaginable. But only the sound of the name, Carmel, was enough to convince us. Laurence, the coach said, would be a first, and he was right. Not only would he have been the first WestIndian to dream of playing on the professional tennis circuit, something which may not have occurred to the coach, in those days he would have been one of the first black men. He would have been famous. He would have been endorsing brand-name sneakers and kids' cereal. He would have made some serious money.
A few years later Laurence did come to the States, but not as a tennis player. He came as a poet. People at home, still following Laurence's story-still swooning a little over the name of a place that sounded like it wanted to be a chewy candy, a place that in their own minds already glittered like Hollywood-said the boy was crazy. "Mad like toro," they said, and it was a real shame for the rest of us, but he'd made an admirable decision. A few of us said it was the only choice that Laurence could have made. It did not prevent his climb to fame and fortune, either. It simply shifted the parameters. Soft-toned it some. I was there to watch it happen. At least the second trajectory. As a matter of fact, when he arrived in Manhattan-not fresh out of Oxford, but from London's West End where, in addition to being a prize-winning poet with three books already published, he'd also established himself as a successful playwright-though we hadn't heard from each other in a full ten years, I was the first person Laurence called. He made a point of telling me so himself. And truth is, I was flattered.
There are two secondary boys' schools at home, one Anglican and government run, the other by the Jesuits, and Laurence and I went together to the Roman Catholic college. But we'd been friends long before then. Because I happened to be one of a dozen spoiled white children literally playing on the precious clay courts back behind the British Club, on the Saturday morning Laurence made his appearance, causing a bigger commesse than he did later at Oxford. A lanky and very shy little Laventille boy holding the cheapest kind of wooden drugstore racket that looked like it had been strung with fishing-twine, wearing new and unmarked crepe-soled washykongs, baggy shorts and a stiff-collared shirt his mother had obviously sewn out herself from 12¢ cotton. A lanky and very shy yet willful little Laventille boy who, despite any auspices of his French-Creole surname, could never have made it past the club's front door.
Ann-Marie, my freckled, carrot-headed cousin, steupsed out loud. She sucked her teeth. Stomped off the court, her ribboned braids flying, the Pied Piper leading the rest of the spoiled little white children behind her. Laurence and I stood at opposite ends of the court littered by bright yellow balls. We stared at each other over the net. And I can tell you that from that moment, even at nine years of age, even before I could have possibly articulated it for myself, I knew that I adored and despised this boy even as much as I did myself.
I dug a ball out of my pocket. Bounced it with its hollow thud and the puff of detonated dust on the clay surface. Lobbed it over at him.
He swung, holding his racket by the middle of the handle, spinning halfway around, missing it altogether. Eventually he managed to swat one into the net. Then to get it over onto my side.
By now the other children had returned, accompanied by several adults, my auntie, Ann-Marie's mother, among them. It was ten in the morning and the adults, also wearing their tennis costumes, were drinking rum-cocktails out of little glasses. Sam, the club's owner, held the beaded silver shaker rattling with ice.
Suddenly my throat ached, like I'd been shouting. The sun was beating down on my head, sweat stinging my eyes. The damp clay smelled like vegetable rot.
We were a spectacle too amusing to stop. The children giggled, my auntie actually guffawed. Laurence and I kept on. Now I missed the ball as often as he did. My racket felt so heavy I could hardly hold it up. My flesh like it was melting off me, sliding from my bones in great, dripping shingles. On the other side of the net, Laurence's face appeared to have been pounded out of that same wrought-iron as the gate behind him.
So it was ironic, to say the least, that when he called to tell me he'd reserved a court for us at Hudson River Park-though our tennis date was still another two weeks off, though for years now I'd sworn myself off tennis as an exceptionally bourgeois, white people's sport-I went out immediately and bought the cheapest wooden racket strung with fishing-twine Walgreens had on offer. I was dead broke.
"Compère," I'd said into the receiver, surprised, genuinely excited to hear his voice. "Me ain't hit a ball since Bazil wearing shortpants!"
I'd felt ridiculous, embarrassed. Two minutes talking on the phone, and already I sounded like I'd never left. Like a country-bookie. Not Laurence: now he spoke like a proper Englishman.
"Fair enough," he'd told me. "Neither have I."
It was one of those perfect Saturday mornings-streetside gypsy flower vendors arranging their bunches in white plastic buckets in the bright sun, the halal butcher in his crimson turban just rolling up his galvanized curtain, sleepy bent-over Asians in front of the markets laying out vegetables on beds of crushed ice-one of those perfect, sunny, early summer mornings, when you knew you'd rather be scrunting the most precarious kind of existence in this place, than live like a prince anywhere else on earth.
All I'd found for a tennis outfit was a pair of cutoff Levis and a Despers T-shirt. But fifteen minutes later I remembered that Desperadoes was the Laventille steelband, and I decided Laurence might take it the wrong way. So waiting for the light at the corner of Broadway and West Houston I balanced my racket for a second on the rounded top of a mailbox, pulled the T-shirt up over my head and put it back on inside-out. The rubber soles of my sockless red hightops were so thin I could feel the cracks in the sidewalks. Count the glass buttons of the basement gratings beneath my feet.
There was still a trace of shyness in Laurence's smile. I wasn't sure if his polo shirt had the creases from being packed in his suitcase, or if it had actually been pressed. But hugging him I smelled the burnt-steam smell of the drycleaners' irons. Mingling with aftershave, or more likely French cologne. We held each other for a second, and I looked over his shoulder, down at the fuzzy little balls attached to his socks hanging over his heels. He looked like he'd put on a few pounds, but I could feel the hard muscles running across his back. He was still in excellent shape. The only exercise I'd done in as long as I could remember was to climb the six flights of stairs to my apartment for which, for the first time, I whispered a prayer of thanksgiving.
Laurence bent over and bounced the ball a few times, quickly, with his left hand, and I took a deep breath. Prepared myself for a royal cut-tail.
But he paused before the service.
"William," he said, "you got your Despers jersey on wrong-side-out."
I exhaled slowly. Relaxed my grip on the racket.
"Didn't want you to take it the wrong way."
"I was afraid you'd feel insulted."
"Oh-ho," he said.
And with those two syllables-not just the syllables themselves but the way he pronounced them, pounding hard on the second one with the blast of air chopped off and squeezed into a high-pitched singsong-with those two syllables I felt a sudden surge of warmth inside my chest. For a second we were back on the damp clay court back behind the British Club. Though I wasn't sure if the emotion I was feeling was thrill, or dread.
Laurence bent over and bounced the ball a few more times. Then paused again.
"Compère," he said, his pursed lips loosening into a smile. "You got that one wrong-side-out, too."
Excerpted from Carnival by Robert Antoni Copyright © 2005 by Robert Antoni. Excerpted by permission.
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