[The Harder They Come] is a tale well-told by Thelwell. Dealing with Jamaica in the throes of sharp transition—from colonialism toward neo-colonialism; from the relatively independent and stable folk communities like the one Ivan [Rhygin] left to the fast, mad world where white coral and even a seat on the beachfront are bought and sold in the tourist trade—Thelwell uses a flexible idiom. The first section of the novel is appropriately naturalistic, and recalls the eloquently described worlds of Thelwell's apparent models, Andrew Salkey and Chinua Achebe. If in places the narrative ride is burdened with heavily schematic analyses and unneeded explication, elsewhere in the novel's opening chapters the allusions to lore, literature and history are wonderfully woven into the finely textured cloth of the novel. Thelwell's wry humor and his precise description of palpable detail rescue the early pastoral scenes from insincerity or mawkishness. There is no faking here. With sometimes grotesque vividness he describes scenes he must have witnessed, people he must have known. The scene, for instance, in which Ivan finds his grandmother dead in her house, is unforgettably striking…. (p. 6)
We meet Thelwell at his best when Rhygin hits Kingston, and the tale unfurls in a variety of versions and voices, with music and gunfire rocking and rattling through the book's pages. It is in the chaotic city, where mad Ivan becomes the fearless Rhygin….
In the back country, Granny heard Ivan's playmates call him "Rhygin" and she wondered if they knew the name's true meaning: "raging, strong but foolish too, overconfident, not knowing where the limits were…. In every litter there was always one—as soon as he could walk good 'im be bring fight to some larger animal." Rhygin is the fearfully alluring trickster and wish-fulfillment badman, the "Johnny-Too-Bad" of reggae music: stylish dresser, talker, lover, singer, religious man obsessed with fighting oppression in this world. He is as distinctively Jamaican as the music itself, which Rhygin calls "the first thing he'd seen that belonged to the youth and the sufferahs. It was roots music, dread music, their own." Inspired by American cowboy movies as well as the Bible, Rhygin is also a hero who transcends national boundaries; he's the tragic trouble-shooter who, against all odds, refuses to give up his dream of freedom and fame. Like a blues hero with rawhide nerve or a hero in one of Sterling Brown's ballads, when they come for him, he does not hide…. Michael Thelwell is an exhilaratingly skillful storyteller, the richness and the pace of whose prose, and the expansiveness of whose vision, mark him as a major new talent. (p. 12)
Robert G. O'Meally, "Ganja Dealer, Dreamer and Kingston Gunman," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), July 27, 1980, pp. 6, 12.