Michael Thelwell

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Jervis Anderson

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In Jamaica during the late 1940s, a gunman named Rhygin (born Ivanhoe Martin) made a brief and stunning appearance in the local news. When Jamaicans picked up their Gleaner one morning, they read of the first great shoot-out in the island's history…. There were to be other deaths in succeeding days and weeks, as Rhygin, eluding the best efforts of the law to capture him, sought out and gunned down selected enemies—persons he deemed to have wronged him. Though the mere idea of Rhygin was terrifying in the extreme, Jamaicans were fascinated as well, for nothing like him had yet showed up in the annals of local crime…. What a figure!, as Jamaicans said, in reflecting upon their first Hollywood-style gunslinger. What could have produced him? From what source of inspiration or grievance had he sprung? Little or nothing was known of his earlier life. In which case, it is probably natural that, as he continued to haunt local thinking, he would in time become a subject of indigenous art. It was only in the realm of imagination that answers to the questions he aroused could be found, or plausibly suggested—answers that could also be used to cast some light upon the circumstances of Jamaican life that may have influenced the emergence of such a character.

The first major effort along these lines was made a few years ago in the form of a film, The Harder They Come…. [Michael Thelwell] has now, in a novel, made the second major attempt at imagining the origins and evolution of a Rhygin. His book carries the title of the film and uses a number of the incidents as well. But Thelwell's work—fully realized in its own right, in no way a "novelization" of the movie—essays a broader and deeper calculation of the social factors in the Jamaican setting which account for the failure of promise, the wrecking of ideals, and the deforming of talent. (pp. 30-1)

In Thelwell's novel, Rhygin is the main figure in a larger portrait of Jamaica's peasant life—the character and position of the underclass, rural and urban; how it endures under the most demanding economic circumstances; and what often seems futile and illusory in its hopes for betterment. Almost all the characters in the book speak in local dialect, and it will take some time for American readers to attune their ears to the sound or to decipher aspects of meaning. But the narrative passages, marked by Thelwell's fine gifts as a prose stylist, will encourage and reward patient effort….

His novel is the most authentic and evocative portrait of the Jamaican poor—the rich and sustaining vernaculars of their culture, the sheer heroism of their economic existence—that I have seen. I don't imagine that a work of this kind, of its particular subject matter and concerns, can be written more truthfully. Beyond the particularities of local reference, The Harder They Come may even be read as a metaphor for the circumstances in which the poorer elements of the black world live—the Sisyphean nature of their uphill struggle against poverty. And beyond politics, Thelwell's novel may also be linked to that body of literature which records the search for selfachievement—what happens to many among the young when they light out from their obscure hometowns to develop, transform, and enact themselves in the major centers of style, culture, and possibility. (p. 32)

Jervis Anderson, "Books and the Arts: 'The Harder They Come'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 183, No. 3, July 19, 1980, pp. 30-2.

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