May 10, 2010

Book Review: Dog-Heart by Diana McCaulay

One of the most salient features of Caribbean literature is writing that emerges from within the prophetic tradition. I’m not talking about jeremiads or grand pronouncements about the future—we already have enough of that in our pop culture. Rather, I’m thinking about novels, poems, and short stories that confront moral issues and which hold the society accountable for its misdeeds and transgressions. This is not an easy task. For ever since movie mogul Jack Warner said, “If you want to give a message, send a telegram,” many North American writers have shied away from writing that deals with societal values or they have used discrete methods to present moral issues. In Dog-Heart, Diana McCaulay navigates many of the pitfalls that could have befallen a less skilled writer and has produced a work of notable achievement within the genre.

Jamaica’s motto is “Out of many, one people.” But you’d never believe it from reading McCaulay’s novel. None of the characters believe it. As one of the two narrators, Raymond “Dexter” Morrison from the ghetto of Jacob’s Pen (think of him as a Jamaican Holden Caulfield) says when he is first enrolled at Holborn Prep, a private school in Kingston:

Is true children at Holborn Prep come in every colour—white, brown, red, black, chiney, coolie…but sometime them just keep themselves separate. White children have white friend and coolie children have coolie friend (140)

And he’s not the only one who sees through the hypocrisy. The other narrator, Sahara Longmore, an uptown browning from Mona Heights (the kind of woman I’d imagine who is a member of the Liguanea Club) has also experienced this kind of de facto apartheid in high school:

I hadn’t thought much about race until high school. At our prep school, most of the children were light-skinned, although few were truly white. There were a sprinkling of black-black kids like Lydia, a few Chinese ones, some Lebanese, one Indian…The black power girls ignored the brownings, who were not black enough to be a part of their set…The brownings disliked the black girls and made fun of their looks—their large backsides, broad noses and fat lips. The brownings called the black-blacks Zulus (65-66).

What emerges from the plot is a recognition of multiple Jamaicas, but McCaulay is more interested in two communities and presents her vision through astute characterization of Dexter, the black ghetto pickney from Jacob’s Pen and Sahara, the uptown browning from Mona Heights.

Following the narrative, it would seem as if Dexter and Sahara come from two different planets and not the same island. And McCaulay’s careful juxtaposition of language and alternating chapters from Dexter’s and Sahara’s point of view exploits the differences, especially those between Carl, her teenage son, and Dexter, whose life one of constant survival. Dexter must struggle every morning to get a place in a line for water: “Other pickney start comin out a the dark. Some stand in a line, but most a them just stand around, waitin for a chance to fill up them bucket" (24). 

Carl, on the other land, is living the sweet life in Jamaica—that is, an existence based on the assumption that actions do not have consequences and the daily dilemma of the poor can be ignored. As Sahara implies, Carl’s biggest concern is acquiring objects of conspicuous consumption: “He’s buttering me up because he wants an iPod to replace his Walkman. Says he’s a social pariah because he still using a Walkman” (19).

In this respect, Carl becomes a stand-in for many of the privileged brownings of Jamaica. For although many of Sahara’s friends acknowledge the inequities between the brownings and the ghetto pickney, few are willing to follow her example to bridge the gap. The people in Sahara’s social circle refer to the ghetto pickney as “those people” (55). And while the brownings are busy catching up on the latest film, Under the Tuscan Sun, Dexter tries to find a some shade in Mandela Park:

They put a tree in this park, but no grass; is bare concrete everywhere you look. And garbage, plastic bottle and fast food paper and Styrofoam lunch box. Plenty goat inna Mandela Park—the goat them love all that garbage (51).

The plight of ghetto pickney is met by browning indifference. Dexter lives in perpetual shame and abuse from his mother, teachers, security guards. This leads him to conclude, almost stoically, with a phrase which he repeats throughout the novel: “Ghetto pickney must beat” (13).

As a result of the daily exposure to violence, Dexter, despite the many opportunities that Sahara has provided for him, sinks into despair and like many other from his background sees a world of limited choices:

What job I can get?...Biggest job somebody like me can get could be security guard like Sinclair. wait all day inna car park, or at the gate of rich people town house scheme. Lift a red and white banner up and down. Earn extra money washin SUV and carryin bag a food into the cool house with tile floor and facety children (119).

In Howard’s End by E. M. Forster, Margaret sums up the ills of her era with the statement, “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. “A similar moral challenge resonates through Dog Heart. Only connect Mona Heights and Jacob’s Pen; uptown browning and downtown ghetto pickney, and live in fragments no longer. I hope we are listening.

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Summer Dula Edward, M.S.Ed. said...

Have been wanting to read this book. You sure do know how to write a review! Much enjoyed.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Thank you, Summer.
I hope you do. Dog-Heart is a timely book.