Monday, January 31, 2011


Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe
Soft Skull Press, 2007
Hardcover, 327 pages
ISBN-13: 9781933368603

Jamestown chronicles a group of “settlers” (more like survivors) from the ravaged island of Manhattan, departing just as the Chrysler Building has mysteriously plummeted to the earth. This ragged band is heading down what’s left of I-95 in a half-school bus, half-Millennium Falcon. Their goal is to establish an outpost in southern Virginia, find oil, and exploit the Indians controlling the area. Based on actual accounts of the Jamestown settlement from 1607 to 1617, Jamestown features historical characters including John Smith, Pocahontas, and others enacting an imaginative re-version of life in the pioneer colony. In this retelling, Pocahontas’s father Powhatan is half-Falstaff, half-Henry V, while his consigliere is a psychiatrist named Sidney Feingold. John Martin gradually loses body parts in a series of violent encounters, and John Smith is a ruthless and pragmatic redhead continually undermining the aristocratic leadership. Communication is by text-messaging, IMing, and, ultimately, telepathy. Punctuated by jokes, rhymes, “rim shot” dialogue, and bloody black-comic tableaux, Jamestown is a trenchant commentary on America's past and present that confirms Matthew Sharpe’s status as a major talent in contemporary fiction.
My thoughts:

Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe is an odd, modern-day dystopian novel. Sharpe calls Jamestown, "an ahistorical fantasia on a real event." What he has done is take the historical Jamestown story, added Disney's Pocahontas to it, as well as other more diverse elements, and set it in an uncertain future USA.

Chapters are each told from a different character's point-of-view. At the beginning, the story alternates between Johnny Rolfe and Pocahontas, while later sections add the first -person accounts of other characters. At first I really enjoyed Jamestown. The premise was intriguing and the often satirical, black humor was funny. But soon it became a bit over-the-top for me. The jokes became stale and eventually the whole novel felt gimmicky.

Jamestown gets some things right. The quality of the writing is good and I liked the alternating chapters told by different characters. On the other hand actual character development is lacking and some of the humor became old. In the end, I think the whole premise of the story is what let me down. While I did enjoy reading it, I wasn't loving it. I felt anxious to finish it and start a more enjoyable novel.

Jamestown is not a book I would necessarily recommend to everyone, but I know it has an audience that enjoys satires and would enjoy it a bit more than I did. I thought Jamestown would be a recommended book until the end when it ultimately was So-so for me


Chapter 1: Johnny Rolfe
To whoever is out there, if anyone is out there:
Today has been an awful day in a run of awful days as long as life so far. The thirty of us climbed aboard this bus in haste, fled down the tunnel, and came up on the river's far bank in time to see the Chrysler Building plunge into the earth. The grieving faces of my colleagues being worse to look at than that crumpling shaft of glass, brick, and steel, I used my knees to plug the sockets of my eyes, put my fingers in my ears, and clamped my nose and mouth shut with my thighs. All main entries to my head remained sealed till Delaware, where I looked up in time to see John Martin vault his seatback, steak knife aimed at George Kendall's throat. Kendall, bread knife aimed at Martin's throat, said, "How dare you say that!" Some great, quaint pre-annihilation philosopher described the movement of history as thesis, antithesis, synthesis, whereas I've seen a lot more thesis, antithesis, steak knife, bread knife. John and George jabbed each other's arms once each before a couple guys broke up the fight, not because they didn't want to see George dead, or John dead, but because we'd signed a contract with our employer stipulating no murder on the bus. Murders off the bus must be approved by a majority of the bus's five-man board of directors. We don't yet know who those five are: their names are sealed in a black box we're meant not to open till we pass from Maryland into Virginia-that is, from civilization into its counterpart, if indeed civilization's what to call what we're fleeing, or exporting, or both. I am this trip's communications specialist, having taken a degree from the Manhattan School of Communications Arts, where I received certificates in linguistics, diplomacy, typing, modern dance, telecom, short and long stick. opening

Never have I seen a hare open its mouth as wide as did the red hare who now bit the small head off the brown thing, whose red blood stained the stiff, brown grass. The second brown thing fled along the stalks, but not in time to not get caught by hare two and sheared in half. That was when I turned away and opted not to hunt the hares. pg. 5

Chapter 2: Pocahontas
To the excellent person I know is reading this:
Hi! My name is Pocahontas and I'm nineteen, but Pocahontas isn't my real name. I will never say my real name. If I say my real name you will die. Anyone who hears my real name will die. Pocahontas is my nickname, it means "person who cannot be controlled by her dad." My dad didn't make up my nickname, my mom did, before she died, and he's kind of mad that that's my nickname because every time someone says it-which is any time anyone says my name because anyone who says my name name will die, which has been proven, but right now I can't talk about that because in English, which is not my mom tongue, you can talk about only one thing at a time, at most-any time anyone says my nickname they're also saying my dad can't control his daughter, and that's bad for my dad, my dad claims, because he's chief of our town and a bunch of other towns in this general area-Superchief, I think y'all might say in English. pg. 7

"Why, whenever you talk about the future, do you sound as if you're describing a country where only sad people live?"
"To counteract the nostalgia for the future that you and everyone else around here seem to feel. To counteract the naïve idea that what makes the future good is that it's the future."
Well it hit me pretty hard when he said that about him and me not getting married, an event we'd been planning since we met at birth. I think he's right but I don't know why. Maybe he's right because he said it. Does that ever happen in English, where saying something makes it true? That happens in my language all the time so people have to be careful what they say but no one ever is, enough.
Then some time passed in the woods that I don't remember anything about, a little wedge of life that's disappeared. And then he said one more thing to me, a single word that caused a single feeling in my breast. The feeling I remember well, but not the word that was its maker. Ugh, I wish I hadn't written this. Too late now. pg. 9-10


Audra said...

Thanks for the honest review -- sounded interesting to start but reading on, I think it's probably not my thing.

Lori L said...

I really wanted to like Jamestown too, Audra, and had been looking forward to reading it.