A Great Wind in Jamaica (Modern Library #71) – Reluctant Habits
(This is the thirtieth entry in the Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: A house for Mr. Biswas.)
by Richard Hughes A strong wind in Jamaica is William Golding’s wild and invigorating patch lord of the flies (to be published on LM#41) which I didn’t know I needed. Truth be told, the two books I’m least looking forward to revisiting during this ridiculously ambitious and time-consuming project are those by JD Salinger. A catcher in the rye (to be published on LM #64) and Lord. Both novels came to me when I was an impressionable high school student who knew nothing better, but I assiduously avoided re-reading both volumes as an adult – the same way you tilt your head wiser and more mature on some of the dodgy cartoons you advocated as a kid. (For the record, as an adult, I still respect The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, Warner Brothers’ decades-long catalog of cartoons, and – if you find me on the right day – Robotech and Star Blazers.)
Fortunately, I had no such scruples with Strong wind; largely because, unlike Golding, Hughes isn’t so obsessed with plugging in values - the novel as a Sudoku puzzle? — to support his Great AllegoryMT (and therefore literary posterity). The older you get as a reader, the more you welcome the new shock of the visceral: those exotic and sometimes unsettling voices you might not encounter in the real world.
Hughes was twenty-five years ahead of Golding when it came to writing a novel about children losing their civilized patina as they traveled deeper into the wild and aberrant valleys of anarchism (in this case , by dint of a motley gang of pirates). But his exquisite mastery of atmosphere shows he was arguably more subtle than Golding, allowing his children’s transformation to become something of a shock in part because of the great care he took with his prose. . Strong wind was one of only four novels written by Hughes. (And apart Strong wind, I highly recommend In danger.) He was more of a playwright, poet, and journalist than a writer of fiction—largely because the pithy approach he took with his sentences slowed him down considerably. But despite his bradykinetic progress, Strong wind proved to be such a literary sensation that it turned Hughes into a notable figure struggling with controversy, literary fame, and even a modestly burgeoning financial cushion.
The novel’s setting involves the Lower Thornton children, who flirt with wild wonders in the Jamaican wilderness when not relishing their privileged comforts on a plantation named Ferndale. A storm devastates their idyllic paradise. And as they return home to England, the children are picked up by pirates.
When the pirates board the unfortunate Clorinda (with Captain Narpole sleeping through the whole imbroglio, saving face later with a devastatingly dark letter of lies), Hughes is exceedingly picky in describing these intruders to type:
With this second cargo came the captain and the mate. The first was a tall, clumsy boy with a sad, silly face. It was bulky; yet so ill-proportioned there was no sense of power. He was modestly dressed in a drab beach suit: he was freshly shaven, and his sparseness was pomaded so that it rested in a few dark ribbons on his bald head. But all that coastal decency of appearance only accentuated his big brown hands, stained and scarred and decked out in his calling. Also, instead of boots, he wore a pair of gigantic Moorish-style heelless slippers, which he must have sliced with a knife from a pair of Dead Sea boots. Even his big, splayed feet could barely keep them, so he was forced to walk the slowest of drags, flop-flop along the deck. He leaned over, as if still afraid of hitting his head on something, and put the backs of his hands forward, like an orangutan.
Just as Knut Hamsun seemed to anticipate the harsh existential sensation of Jim Thompson and James M. Cain in 1890 (thanks too, late and great translator Sverre Lyngstad!), Hughes also portrays the working-class professional criminal just before the scream the clad snarl has become a black staple. These pirates make a superficial effort to look presentable (the captain – later revealed to be a German-speaking Danish thug named Jonsen – went to the trouble of shaving and pomade what’s left of his hair), but they’re also improvised in their clothing choices. Hughes’ fine choice of “dead sea boots” suggests something flawed and ungodly at work here. (Indeed, one of the buyers unloading the booty is a vicar, described as “less clean-shaven than he would have been in England”. Later, a distorted nativity scene is played to entertain the pirates. , Christian Soldiers” is alluded to in a chilling way.) And Jonsen’s desperate attempt to keep his fancy slippers tailored — paired with the telltale pockets of his aloof hands, which resemble a spastic animal — is just one of many examples of the dry and demanding comedy. which Hughes gently dispenses throughout this deranged tale of adventure. There’s also a mysterious first-person narrator serving almost as a cosmic god offering biting asides. Indeed, the standoff between Marpole and these thugs reminded me of the “civilized” exchange between Barry and the highwayman in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. (In Barry LyndonKubrick also had a sardonic narrator in the form of Michael Hordern’s Ark commentary, who also served up dry asides about how we’re all thinly disguised animals beneath the human brilliance. Did Kubrick know Hughes? We may never know, though it should be noted that a young Martin Amis appeared as one of the children in the 1965 film adaptation of Hughes’ novel.)
Yet the look of these pirates is enough to trigger a modest crush in Margaret, one of the children, who marvels at their beauty. At a time when TV shows like Euphoria and high school movie classics like Fast times at Ridgemont High Where Ferris Bueller’s day off are heralded for using transgressive behavior to portray teenagers as “adults” (this approach can also be seen skillfully executed in the more recent novels of Megan Abbott, who has used this storytelling device in framing children through the subcultures of ballet, cheerleading and hockey), it is impossible to overstate the big risk Hughes took here in 1929. During the hurricane that afflicted Jamaica, Hughes also foreshadowed how to live in a state nature can inevitably subsume anyone – even a child – by having a pet named Tabby ruthlessly pursued by feral cats.
You will, alas, have to deal with the novel’s appalling and off-putting racism (“there is, after all, a great difference between a nigger and a favorite cat,” writes Hughes when both die after a hurricane and there is a cruel treatment of a monkey on the high seas, which suggests a disturbing metaphor). But the sheer weirdness that forms the backbone of this sweeping story quickly atones for those ancient and horrific “cultural values.”
Strong wind is also the earliest recorded example of Hangman’s Blood, a cocktail later favored by Anthony Burgess. Seventeen years ago, I persuaded an Upper Haight bartender to make me this famous libation. It was, I’m sad to say, pretty awful. I never tried again. Hughes himself also understood what a hideous mixture it was, describing it as possessing “the property of increasing rather than quenching thirst, and so, once breached, soon demolishes all the strong”.
Unconsciously, too, everyone recognizes that they are animals – otherwise why do people always laugh when a baby does a human-like action, as they would a praying mantis?
Children are adapting to their new lives just as many bored children today stare blankly at their digital screens for constant stimulation. When one of them dies, Hughes oddly notes how quickly they get used to an empty bed. When Jonsen picks up the “three sovereign rules of life” based on their youth, Edward responds, “Why not? When will I be old enough? In fact, reading Strong wind in 2022 is rather odd, especially shocked to recognize such everyday behavior in children today. Hughes is quick to say that boredom can quickly make children unruly and mischievous. Margaret speaks “with an eagerness that exceeds even the necessities of politeness in its falseness”. When the first mate tries to curse the kids by mentioning a famous pirate named Rector of Roseau, the kids quickly see through the superficiality of the apocryphal origin story, punching the first mate’s plot holes faster than the comic guy on The simpsons. And the children fight back, Hughes even describing a bodily awakening in Emily.
I sure don’t wanna mess up How? ‘Or’ What children are transformed. But it’s subtly disconcerting, with a clever nod to the Flying Dutchman. We wonder if this particular group of children was destined to transform like this, even though the pirates had never kidnapped them, or if savage circumstances shaped their transmutation. Hughes, to his credit, leaves the reader somewhat off the hook with this aside, noting how regularly children are underestimated:
Adults embark on a life of deception with great trepidation and usually fail. But not so children. A child can hide the most dreadful secret without the slightest effort and is virtually immune to detection. Parents, finding that they perceive their child in so many places he does not know, seldom realize that if there is a moment when the child really attaches himself to hiding, their chances are null.
Given how much trouble kids have been a pain in the ass for so many parents over the years, it’s rather surprising that it’s taken so long for the literature to point this out. Hughes’ perfectly written masterpiece – with its alligators and earthquakes as odd forms of ferocious incitement and its ironic asides about our assumptions about children – was one of the first great works of fiction to question this disconcerting truth. And, even today, A strong wind in Jamaica is a bold and welcome reminder that children should not be underestimated. At a time when dumb milquetoasts forbid Maus classrooms for the most arbitrarily intransigent concerns (just read the minutes of the meeting), Strong wind – with its chilling final sentence – is a quick kick in the ass to the cowardly, unadventurous sensibilities that keep us from being honest about what anyone is capable of becoming and that so many of these disturbing possibilities hide in plain sight.
Next step : Lawrence Durrel, The Alexandria Quartet!