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Jamestownby Matthew Sharpe
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"A wonderfully warped piece of American deadpan, Sharpe's retelling of the Jamestown settlement has the settlers arriving in the Virginia swamp on a bus from Manhattan. There are numerous hints that civilization has taken some devastating hit, leaving Manhattan without oil or untainted food and engaged in a long war with Brooklyn. Hence, the venture into the wilds of the Southern states. The settlers are led by John Ratliff, whose mother's boyfriend is the CEO of Manhattan Company. The Indians, who speak English (a fact they try to dissemble), owe their 'reddish' hue to their use of sunblock SPF 90. They're led by Powhatan and advised by Sidney Feingold — and they lack guns. The story follows the traditional romantic arc, as Powhatan's daughter, Pocahontas, falls in love with one of the settlers, the lank, sallow, greasy-haired communications officer, Johnny Rolfe, and saves the life of another, Jack Smith. The narrative alternates first-person accounts, allowing Sharpe (The Sleeping Father) to weave his preternatural sense of parody into an increasingly dire story of killings and kidnappings. The chapters narrated by Pocahontas are virtuoso exercises in language, as MySpace lingo metamorphoses into Jacobin rhetoric, blackface dialect and back again. This is a tour-de-force of black humor." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"You know that guy in ninth grade who was always reciting 'Monty Python' skits to himself? Somewhere, in his parents' basement, he's now committing chapters of Matthew Sharpe's 'Jamestown' to memory. This hilarious, poignant and often annoying novel reimagines the first permanent English settlement in America as a modern-day dystopia, an absurd hybrid of Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road' and Walt Disney's... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 'Pocahontas.' Sharpe calls 'Jamestown' 'an ahistorical fantasia on a real event,' which seems as good as any description we might devise for his psychedelic tribute to the 400th anniversary. The more you know about the actual history, the more you'll be amused (or horrified) by Sharpe's weird transformations, but there's plenty of broad, scatological humor here even for those who couldn't find Virginia on a map. In Sharpe's zany version, the United States has collapsed, the environment is dead, and the survivors are starving. The ruler of Manhattan — in the midst of a ruinous bombing campaign against Brooklyn — sends a group of settlers (half of them 'early release convicts') down highway I-95 to Virginia to search for food and fuel on the Autobus Godspeed, a bulletproof vehicle that 'differs from jail only insofar as it's more crowded and volatile, smells worse, and what surrounds it makes most of what goes on in jail look like a walk in a field of poppies.' The story comes to us through a series of short entries by different characters, such as the group's craven leader, John Ratcliffe; the indefatigable, often chained, frequently condemned-to-death Jack Smith; and even 'A Couple of Fops' who are dying of their wounds. But the primary narrators are 'the irreverent scamp' Pocahontas and the settlers' communications specialist, Johnny Rolfe. In real life, they eventually married and had a son. But here they fall in love at first sight, and their letters, e-mails, IMs and telepathic communications make up most of this story of disastrous cultural contact. Despite the incongruous elements of modern technology, the old chestnuts of the Jamestown story are here: Pocahontas interrupting Smith's execution, a couple of horny settlers lured to their deaths by Indian girls, and negotiations collapsing into deadly skirmishes again and again. But it's all run through the meat grinder of Sharpe's freaky sense of humor. He plays with the names like a naughty, brilliant child: 'Rat Cliff,' 'Poke-a-huntress,''Jacks Myth.' Native American customs and language are subjected to the kind of politically incorrect comedy that could get a writer who cared burned at the stake. Pocahontas is a linguistic acrobat whose feminist wit skewers Indian pretensions as readily as it punctures Anglo cliches. Watching one of her friends prepare for the hunt, she writes, 'If a man could dance and have a heart attack and an orgasm all at the same time, (he) would resemble that man.' Later, spotting the settlers' bus, 'I tiptoed, real quiet, Indian style, through tall corn stalks all dolled up in dew like girls in rhinestones.' But the settlers come off far, far worse. Beneath a torrent of sophomoric vomit jokes, sex jokes and fart jokes, 'Jamestown' is an anguished lament for the whole bloody history of Western conquest, the stupidity and cruelty of invaders then and now. Back in Manhattan, their crime boss, Jim Stuart (think King James of the house of Stuart), lays waste to the city and tortures his mistress with bad erotic haiku after sex. One of the most vicious (and therefore successful) settlers survives having his legs hacked off and an arrow shot through his head, which he keeps there, a la Steve Martin, while being carried around through the rest of the novel by two muscle-bound bodyguards in their underwear. Sharpe's wit relies primarily on the juxtaposition of profundity and silliness, tragedy and absurdity, a kind of 'Catch-22' about the 17th century for the 21st century. 'Jamestown' is packed with marvelous material, moving and funny and deeply provocative, but Sharpe is determined to cram the pages with allusions and fragmented quotations till you feel like you're stuck in an elevator with Dennis Miller: Here's Plato, Tennyson, Beethoven, Whitman, Kant, Shakespeare, Wang Yang-ming, William Morris, Otis Redding, Judy Garland, even Gary Coleman — it's enough to make you stop googling and cry 'OK! OK! You're the cleverest writer in the universe, but just stop it, for God's sakes!' Another thing that may try your patience is passages of inane, staccato dialogue such as this between two injured men: 'Shall we contemplate the end of civ, then?' 'I've always like you.' 'I've always liked you too.' 'How shall we contemplate it?' 'Don't know.' 'How shall we honor it?' 'Not sure.' 'It's nice to talk.' 'It feels good to talk. Talk takes the edge off the want.' 'When it doesn't put it on.' 'Indeed, it sometimes puts it on.' 'Mostly puts it on.' 'Causes it.' 'Maybe.' 'Maybe.' 'It feels good to agree.' Needless to say, a little of this goes a long way, but Sharpe is a consistently surprising writer, who puts as many crazy demands on the English language as it's ever endured. Like those original profiteers and thieves, if you venture into 'Jamestown,' you'll find more than you could have imagined — some of it ghastly, some of it marvelous. Beware and Godspeed. Ron Charles is senior editor of The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Bing WestKai BirdJennifer HowardTony HorwitzEdwin M. Yoder Jr.Christopher ByrdAnne GluskerJonathan YardleyRobert PinskyRon Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] vulgar, cacophonous Sound and the Fury-style book for the wired generation, featuring all your favorite Jamestown characters tossed into a postapocalyptic salad. Like a gorier George Saunders. (Grade: A-)" Entertainment Weekly
"[A] gonzo reimagining of the founding of the famous Virginia colony, which this year celebrates its 400th anniversary....It's all quite entertaining but may bewilder those hoping for a more conventional narrative (not to mention those unfamiliar with the history of the real Jamestown colony)." Houston Chronicle
"At heart a dystopian love story, Jamestown is also a satire of American myth-making, a witty reflection on the practice of history, and a wry, wounded celebration of the jouissance of sexual pleasure, devotion, art and language, even in a world where necessity has trumped desire." Newsday
"[A] wild, violent, mordantly hilarious retelling of how the first permanent English settlement in the New World came into being." Los Angeles Times
About the Author
Matthew Sharpe is the author of Stories from the Tube. He has published stories in Zoetrope, Harper's, American Letters and Commentary, Witness, The Quarterly, and Fiction. He lives in New York.
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