Marlon James is photographed in his studio
apartment in Minneapolis.
around 3 p.m. on Oct. 1, the biggest day in Marlon James’
career — if not his life. His third novel, "A
Brief History of Seven Killings," hit bookstores
with more buzz than a swarm of bees.
is on his phone with prominent Jamaican blogger Annie
Paul, who has just published her interview with him
online. The blog post, in which James discusses his
novel about the 1976 attempted assassination of Bob
Marley in Kingston, has upset editors at the New York
Times and the Wall Street Journal, each of which has a
story on James coming out soon.
you please take it down?" James asks Paul, no sign
of panic or upset in his voice.
wonders why anyone would care about her little blog in
just for a little bit,’?" he says. "It’s
an embargo thing."
cool," he says, signing off. "The Times, I’ve
worked with them — they always have to be first."
media storm is all about "Seven Killings," a
nearly 700-page novel published by Riverhead, a Penguin
imprint. The press is sending James on a multiweek
national tour to support a work that blunt New York
Times critic Michiko Kakutani called "epic in every
sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over-the-top,
colossal and dizzyingly complex."
Russell Banks has been similarly effusive, saying that
"Seven Killings" is "scary and lyrically
beautiful — you’ll want to read whole pages aloud to
book is "an indispensable and essential history of
Jamaica’s troubled years," said Publishers
no mistake: "Seven" is no easy airport read.
The novel, which James has been thinking about for
decades and which he completed over the past four years,
radiates from the Dec. 3, 1976, assassination attempt on
Marley, the reggae superstar. Two days after dodging
most of the bullets, an injured Marley headlined a peace
concert in Kingston, the Jamaican capital, standing
between the leaders of the two political parties like,
he would later say, Jesus between the two thieves.
uses the assassination attempt as a touchstone to create
an imaginative, Joycean mosaic of social history that
pulls in a dizzying cast of characters.
Killings" takes place in 1970s Jamaica, where the
CIA, intent on Jamaica’s not becoming a socialist
country, armed rival political gangs that would morph
into the posses that ruled parts of New York and Miami
in the 1980s and 1990s. There are spies, gang bosses,
politicians, musicians, lovers and dreamers.
first novel, "John Crow’s Devil," was
published by small, independent Akashic Press. He moved
to Riverhead for "The Book of Night Women," a
novel set in the 19th century and told in a woman’s
voice. That one has been optioned for a film, but it
didn’t approach the rapturous reviews that make
"Seven Killings" a breakout book for the
has the physique of the track runner he once was (his
specialty was the 200 meters, although he could not cut
it in the land of Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce).
To tame his dreadlocks, he sometimes wraps his hair in a
bandanna. And he inspires awe in his students at
seems that he has been living for this moment. On his
official publication day, as he bounds into his rented
loft atop the Midtown Global Market in south
Minneapolis, he is greeted by a blast of bright light
coming in large windows that give a panoramic view all
the way to St. Paul. Framed posters and photographs of
primitives and nudes cover the walls, along with framed
album covers — Hendrix, the Stones, Grace Jones. It’s
the kind of place where Jean-Michel Basquiat and David
Bowie would feel right at home.
sits at a table and flips open his MacBook Air to see
what all that fuss is about. He clicks on the article in
the Times, hoping aloud that he hasn’t used up his 10
free stories this month. The author photo strikes him
the one they chose?" James says. "I thought I
was smiling; I’m not that serious."
phone buzzes constantly, and there also are dings coming
from his computer indicating social-media updates from
friends and followers. He switches to Facebook, and
exclaims as he sees who has posted on his page:
"Victor Chang!" he says. "He was my first
writing teacher at UWI," the University of the West
he reads, he pauses to address a question of language
that comes up about this work. The book is told in
voices from a wide strata of Jamaican society, from
slang and Patwa to the queen’s English. Patwa, he
says, is not some dialect of English or, worse,
"broken English," but its own language.
has its own rules, grammar, everything that a language
needs to function," James says. "True, it’s
not written down, but not every language is
Killings" is James’ imaginative attempt to make
sense of his formative years. He was born in 1970, two
years before Michael Manley swept to power, promising a
Sweden-style socialist paradise. On the other side was
American-born Edward Seaga, often referred to as CIA-ga.
More than a thousand people died in political violence
that brought Seaga to power in 1980. Manley returned to
power from 1989 to 1992.
STORY CAN END HERE)
DONS AND PRINCE
book is based on real events and real people, but the
names have been changed. For starters, James doesn’t
want to be sued. For another, the characters from that
era, or their descendants, are still around.
the bookstore reading, he says that he may not be able
to go to Jamaica for two years. Asked if he thinks that
the dons or political forces in Jamaica will read his
book, he nods. "Or they’ll hear about it,"
he says. "It’s a popular parlor game."
the bookstore that night, James reads a passage about a
Jamaican don named Josey Wales, a trusted distributor of
Colombian cocaine to North America. On a trip to New
York, Josey goes to a crack house in Brooklyn for the
first time to see the effect of his distribution
the drug house, the don gets held up by a junkie waving
a squirt gun filled with urine. The junkie sprays Josey
in the face. Peeved, Josey goes into the house and uses
real guns to shoot the zombielike clientele there. The
scene is an orgiastic flurry both gory and funny.
excerpt involves a man and a woman meeting in an
apartment in New York. While they flirt, Prince plays on
man "walks over to the stereo and picks up the
album jacket," James reads, then goes into the
the homely looking dyke on the bike?" The man asks.
Prince. The mustache wasn’t a giveaway?"
second thought was, that was the hottest bearded lady
OF A JUDGE AND A DETECTIVE
grew up in Portmore, a suburb of Kingston, Minn. His
mother was a police detective, and his father, who died
in 2012, a judge. His family is the Jamaica diaspora in
microcosm. James’ siblings live in Canada, the United
Kingdom and Jamaica.
were the Cosbys, or saw ourselves as such," he
said. "My childhood was pretty boring."
was into comics and music, said Sara James, a graphic
designer and Marlon’s younger sister.
I think back on my childhood, the soundtrack for all my
memories is not reggae, but Prince and Madonna and Men
at Work," she said. "That’s Marlon’s
influence. That’s all he was into."
he was young, James read everything he could — novels,
poetry, comics. He would get magazines at his favorite
bookstore in Kingston. "It would be January and we’re
just getting the October Rolling Stone, but I didn’t
mind," he said.
craving for things foreign opened his world. It also
helped form his rangy aesthetic.
a singular talent who’s been dedicated to reading and
to writing for a long time," said Jamaican-American
novelist Colin Channer, founding artistic director of
the Calabash Literary Festival, through which James and
many other writers honed their crafts and got their
breaks. "He’s of a generation of writers who
inherited the boldness and the freedom of earlier
writers. … But his freedom also comes from reggae. He
has a central place in the global modern."
Channer, the hallucinogenic stream of consciousness that
animates parts of "Seven Killings" is not just
the influence of Faulkner and Morrison, but also of
reggae, specifically dub music.
is doing in literature what Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry did
in music," Channer said. "He’s channeling a
reggae aesthetic that’s being overdubbed on literary
Calabash 10 years ago, James got his big break. He used
to go to all the readings and workshops.
remember this round face bredda with picky head in the
front row," Channer said.
one workshop, he met writer, editor and professor Kaylie
Jones. She had heard about his work and was excited to
meet him. The only problem was that he had thrown out
the manuscript of his first book, "John Crow’s
Devil." James had to contact friends in London to
retrieve a copy.
I read it, I was spellbound," Jones said. "I
can’t believe that it had been rejected by most of the
publishers in New York. They must not have read
suggested James to Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic
Books in Brooklyn. He, too, was smitten.
writing hits me on a visceral level while completely
capturing my imagination, my intellect," said
Temple, who used his earnings from his rock band (Girls
Against Boys) to found a press. "His writing has
gristle, this raw coarseness that I’m attracted to in
music and literature. When you lose yourself in it, it’s
such a pleasure because you’re in the hands of a
his classes on campus and in his readings, James often
is surrounded by former students. They talk about him in
near-reverential terms. Jeff Bennett, who sometimes
works out with James, said that his former professor’s
influence changed the course of his life.
he sent James a story, Bennett was not even an English
major. He changed majors, graduated and has been sending
out fiction. Recently, he gave notice at his job so he
could spend more time writing.
the editor and writer, heard James talking recently. She
said it sounded familiar.
was saying some of the stuff I teach my students,"
she laughed. "I told him, ‘I taught you that.’?"
said, ‘Oh, that’s where I got it.’ I have to
I first met him, 10 years ago, I told him he was going
to be the voice of a generation. He was going to do
great things. And here we are, and he’s just getting