The Village Voice review for Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe called the novel “Jackass for the Jacobean set.” I am intimately familiar with Jackass, but I had to look up who exactly the “Jacobean set” might be. That should tell you on which side of that particular cultural divide I end up on. The book was in my mitts before I saw that review, so I had committed to checking this one out well before they started talking Jackass. So there.
Jamestown was also mentioned in a recent L.A. Times trend piece about the bumper crop of post-apocalyptic literature, along with some book by a guy named Cormac McCarthy. I haven’t read The Road yet, and I’m feeling more and more like the rube for having missed it before all the awards came rolling in. However, I have read Jamestown, so I feel pretty good about having adequately covered my post-apocalyptic bases.
Jamestown is set in the unspecified future. The Brooklyn Company and The Manhattan Company are at war. The Chrysler Building is crumbling to ruins in the rear view mirror of an armored bus full of settlers bound for Virginia. John Smith and John Rolfe are among the settlers. Does some of this sound familiar?
When the ragtag group gets to Virginia, they find a community of red-skinned savages from whom they hope to obtain oil, food, and otherwise exploit. The chief of the savages is a huge man named Chief Powhatan whose daughter is called Pocahontas. Powhatan’s psychiatrist and chief adviser is Sidney Feingold. Most of that also sounds familiar.
The set up is genius. Sharpe couches our uncertain future in the myths of our past. Coupled with a fantastic sense for the absurd, this book is funny to boot. Can Cormac say that? Didn’t think so.
The scenes where the settlers interact with the savages are truly inspired. Clearly the “indians” have the upper hand, but they enjoy toying with the settlers. The settlers, all city dwellers, have no idea how to get clean water, how to get unspoiled food, how to build a settlement – but that doesn’t stop them from assuming superiority over the Indians. (It turns out that the Indian’s red skin is actually 100+ SPF sunblock.)
The novel is also brutal. The violence and language are not for the delicate. I think that it is this aspect of the novel that lead the Village Voice to throw out the “Jackass” comparison. However, the brutality is not gratuitous nor is it fishing for easy laughs. I think in a post-apocalyptic world manners, decorum, and good sense may be the first victims. In the novel, the brutality is a mirror showing us our true selves with our modern comforts stripped away. Let’s face it, it’s an increasingly short trip to Lord of the Flies.
These themes made me think – always a dangerous proposition. In this country, those of us in cities often look down on those in rural areas as ignorant rubes. What do they know? I mean other than how to provide food for all of us, build houses and barns, get clean water, be stewards of the land, etc. They probably know that it would be bad to build a settlement next to a malarial swamp. But other than that…? How screwed would we be if our future survival depended upon the city mouse contingent for basics like food and water? Dude, I need to you to grow some corn for a few thousand people…
The book also includes the tragic love love story of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Rest assured, their relationship is no less complicated or doomed in the future than it was in the past. Unlike Cormac McCarthy, Sharpe’s vision of the future has no place for familial or romantic love.
My reading of the end of the book really drove home a central theme – how we’ve become prisoners to the things that we take for granted. How much would we be willing to sacrifice to have a roof over our heads and food in the fridge? How many of our ideals have we already given up to maintain a status quo? That’ll keep you up at night.
I thought that this book was brilliant. I’ll be pissed if it doesn’t get some recognition during award season, although there may be some apocalypse fatigue by then. Who knows? With our current Administration and kids killing each other, our taste for apocalyptic literature may be just beginning.