Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe
Few writers since Donald Barthelme have been able to synthesize an absurdist comic vision with true erudition, not even to mention narrating a story which is both hilarious parody and dark, haunting realism. In fact, erudition, one could say, works against comedic ambitions, creating a gravitas which can all to easily undercut other authorial intentions. And if the story-telling is in the hands of a writer willing to forfeit deeper levels of substance for camp and jokes, the work can become tiresome and banal. It is most difficult to apply the lighter touches necessary to political parody these days and even harder to create a narrative that will operate sort of like a hot air balloon and carry its passengers across history, myth and legend, while letting them fly into giggles, as if drifting into fluffy, vaporous clouds. But in Matthew Sharpe’s book, this balance is wonderfully achieved and skillfully at play. “Entertaining” is an under-rated quality in literary fiction, perhaps, and Matthew Sharpe’s new novel Jamestown reminds us how potent it can be.
Matthew Sharpe is the author of two previous novels, The Sleeping Father and Nothing is Terrible, as well as a short-story collection Stories From the Tube. Jamestown draws on the Jamestown legend: how the first American settlers made their first settlement in the New World, driving the Indians off their native grounds. Sharpe has set up his retelling of the Jamestown legend by casting his characters into contemporary voices who alternately parody the standard story of the first Americans and Indians and then weave in their own wild, original adventures and personalities. The novel is written in several different character’s voices, each presented as first-person monologues. It is Sharpe’s impressive skill with language and voice that makes the book so seductive and enchants us. And so, for the purposes of rendering a truly literary appreciation of this author’s gifts, I would like to showcase parts of these inventive, playful monologues, as only describing them wouldn’t suffice or do justice to Sharpe’s formidable talent. The play and echoes of these monologues provide the wind on which his satire flies and they are the reason the work reaches such peaks of hilarity and sting, offering a deftly told political tour-de-force.
The book begins with a monologue from Johnny Rolphe (who will become our romantic interest in the book as he leads his survivors into the swampy South and falls in love with the famous Pocahontas -- the daughter of the Indian’s Tribal Chief):
“To whoever is out there,” Johnny Rolphe begins the novel, “if anyone is out there: Today has been an awful day in a run if awful days as long as life so far. The thirty of us climbed aboard this bus in haste, fled down the tunnel, and came up on the river’s far bank in time to see the Chrysler building plunge into the earth...”
Witnessing human chaos as the city pieces fly about, Rolphe’s comic portrayals of the feuds and debauchery inside the fallen New York City fill the beginning pages of the tale. “Some great, quaint pre-annihilation philosopher described the movement of history as thesis, antithesis, synthesis, whereas I’ve seen a lot more thesis, antithesis, steak knife, bread knife” he tells us, then describes how a man holds a breadknife in one hand, a steak knife in the other, vaults from his seat back during the collective journey out of the destroyed city, to slit the throats of not one but two other men, each knife, steak and bread, ready in his hands.
“A few miles out of Delaware a log or rock got lodged in our tank tread,“ Rolphe continues, chronicling the exodus from Manhattan, “I gazed out the dirty bullet-proof window at two plump hares, creatures one sees none of on the island of my birth. ‘Say bullet resistant glass not bulletproof glass because there’s no such thing as bulletproof glass and though this may be a technicality I wouldn’t want to sell this glass to you under false pretenses however slight’ the used bullet proof glass salesman said to me in my role as this trips communication specialist, back at home, three days before the earth swallowed the tower. ‘What will you be using the glass for?’”
‘For not dying,’ I said and put my fist in contact with his chin, in modern-day New York. Stepping over his prone form, I put as much glass in my cart as would fit. Don't judge me, if I exist. Show me a man who goes to sleep each night integrity in tact and I will hit him in the chin with my fist and take his glass.”
The eager new settlers, after the arrive in the South’s wilderness are led by a character named John Ratliff. Ribald satire abounds once the books gets rolling. Ratliff’s mother's boyfriend is the CEO of Manhattan Company. The Indians are “redskins” due to their applied use of “sunblock SPF 90”. The story follows the Rolphe’s falling in love for Powhatan's daughter, Pocahontas, and later in the story, she saves the life of another settler named Jack Smith. Kidnappings, killings, and theft continue to alternate as each first-person account leads us through another verbal thicket of dark comedy and surreal events.
After Johnny Rolphe’s first person account, we meet Pocahontas:
“To the excellent person who is reading this! Hi! My name is Pocahontas,” she writes, “and I’m nineteen, but Pocahontas isn’t my real name. If I say my real name you will die. Anyone who hears my real name will die. Pocahontas is my nickname means “person who cannot be controlled by her father. My dad didn’t make it up, my mom did before she died, and he’s kind of mad because that that’s my name because anyone who says my name name will die., which has been proven, but right now I can’t talk about that because in English, which isn’t my mom tongue, you can talk only about one thing at time, at most” she continues: “Oh, English, how I love to write to you in English, even though its so slow to anything in English because English moves at the speed of talking, whereas my language moves at the speed of thinking. Thinking in English is beautiful sort of in a way it is beautiful to have smoked a big bowl of Busthead.”
Later in the novel Pocahontas delivers a poem for us. She writes:
To the edge of the world I am running
Beyond the land, beyond the sea
I evade my predator with cunning
And so does my virginity
As the the novel follows the legendary plot of the Jamestown history. John Ratcliffe, lets the reader know what is happening:
“Dear President Stuart,” begins Ratcliffe’s first person account, “Please allow me to to begin by letting you know how honored I am by the confidence you have expressed by appointing me executive president of the Virginia Branch of the Manhattan Company. I will do my best to execute your intentions to the extent that I understand them. have arrived safely, and have begun scouting the area for a suitable location on which to begin construction of regional headquarters. As surely you must know, our departure took place under less than ideal circumstances due to the unanticipated urban infarction of which you were also no doubt a recipient. (I trust you have found safe ground sir and are prospering!)”
There are also darker places in this book, surprises even as the story becomes more wild, and Sharpe flirts with sounding preposterous. At one point, for example, Pocahontas observes a man with an arrow in his head and speaks of him to her Aunt Charlene:
“That man does not believe he’ll die one day”, she says to Charlene,
“The one with the arrow in his head.”
“How can you tell?”
“He’s got an arrow in his head and he’s not dead.”
“How could he not believe he’ll die? What a dope.”
“He’s not a dope, he’s smart and strong, in spite of how he looks and acts. And what he says. His unbelief in death protects him. his unbelief in his own death is an attack on death that death is flummoxed by. and by the way, you, too, don’t believe you’ll die.”
“I know I’ll die. I think about it all the time.
“You know and think but don’t believe.”
“And will my unbelief protect me?”
Reading Jamestown I thought of Barthelme’s famous novellas Snow White or The Dead Father. I thought how humor in a skillful writer’s hands can open a door to profundity, to substance, show us places without those depth that are as absurd as they are serious. Absurdity can be enlightening. Jamestown is as much about violence, the exploitation of races, women, corporate avarice as it is a tour-de-force and plain wildly funny. It’s the adroit balance of effects Sharpe strikes makes it exceptional and one not to be missed, I think.
Or as Pocahontas sums it it up, capturing Sharpe’s combustive blend of bawdy parody and sober seriousness:
“What strange fish these are who fear the water that surrounds them. And by fish I mean men, and by men these grim and self-destroying fools among whom I sink down now in illness and despair., But the heck with Shell Knee Craw for uttering the d word, even in her mind, and to no one. She -- I -- might as well say aloud, seriatum, to her worst enemy -- and who dat is she think she know but (ugh!) will not admit -- all her killing secret names, show all her secret selves, leave no wall between her outside and her inside, become in other words--nothing.“
There are so many more examples of glistening, inventive, and ingenious writing. John Ratcliffe’s wife writes:
“After we had sex tonight, Jim read aloud a haiku he wrote for me as is his wont, and gave me a copy in his fast and and clear and forceful script:
Manhattan’s dirt in Brooklyn’s eyes
my cock in your ass
As the novel stampedes and rollicks towards its climax and inevitable end, Pocahontas takes the narrative reins and provides us with a report of exactly how the famous Indian tribe was dominated and conquered at last by the white settlers.
“Dear fellow grown-up,“ Pocahontas writes,“First thing I did as a woman was the dishes. Oh no wait, that’s not true. First thing I did was watch two boys flight, and try to break them up and fail. Last night, after I told you about the advent of the menarche, I kind of went into a swoon and passed out in the corn shack awoke at dawn with killer backache. I eased my redass down out the back flap of the shack so as not to be seen by the guys on the bus, in case they were awake, and I tip-toed, real quiet, Indian style, through all the corn stalks all dolled up in dew like girls in rhinestones. Hello, you glorious young woman, they said to me. Corn loves me. Plants in general love. Soil rich in human blood loves me.”
In short, a sparklingly energetic vaudevillian satire becomes a sobering meditation on war, sex, and gender, (or “civilization and its counterparts,” as John Rolphe describes it at the very beginning). Black humor always bubbling, and often raising the boiling point of this narrative stew to reveal the folly and doomed apocalyptic intensity of humankind. This is, indeed, no small literary feat. I think Sharpe is a rare writer, one who freshens the air with new and original work at the same time he re-acquaints us with our past (and too often forgotten) maestros. Donald Barthelme is just one such maestros that this work called to mind, and I do hope readers will enjoy as much as I did the abundance here.