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No Telephone to Heaven by Michelle Cliff (Dutton: $16.95; 186 pp.) : Sting of the Bee by Seth Rolbein (St. Martin's: $16.95; 256 pp.)

September 06, 1987|Joy Williams | Williams, a short-story writer, is also the author of "Florida Keys: A History and Guide" (Random House).

Here are two books from Jamaica, and believe me, Jamaicans are tired of living in our sandbox. These writers want their homeland back. The hero of one book finds his way home the conventional way, the moral and spiritual way, the way of the heart. The heroine of the other never finds her way. She is emblematic of a Jamaica destroyed. She is a woman/land with no magic, no power--a woman/land sterile and defeated.

There is a glossary at the end of Michelle Cliff's "No Telephone to Heaven." We are told, for example, that teen-ager roach is a "small cockroach"; licklemos is "almost"; battyman is a "homosexual; pejorative"; and watchman is "the piece of salt pork atop a pot of rice and peas." The latter makes for somewhat confusing reading since, at the end of the book, Watchman is also the name of Christopher, the yard boy, who has turned into the "Neger Jesus," "Duppy Conquerer" and general all-around mass murderer and bum. No, don't look for help from the glossary; you're on your own with this book. "No Telephone to Heaven" is written with such rage that it is virtually incoherent. The book begins with the vicious machete murder of a white family (complete with all the bloody trimmings) and ends with the massacre of a film crew (this performed in a hasty, less luxurious fashion). The language, dreamily, deliriously imagistic at best, breaks down completely at the end, apparently because everyone, more or less, dies. This is the way the end goes:

coo, cu, cu, coo

piju, piju, piju

cuk, cuk, cuk, cuk


eee-kah, ee-kah, ee-kah


be be be be be be be be be be be

cwa cwa cwa cwa cwaah cwaah

So much for political awakening. Life's a lot of gibberish, and then you die. Or rather, that's the fate of Claire, the "white chocolate" protagonist of this book. Claire is also a "mule," for she has picked up an infection from her Viet vet lover that has made her sterile. The vet, Bobby, has a 10-year-old pus-yellow weeping wound on his ankle. The wound is a symbol; Bobby is a symbol. Symbolic, too, is a character named Harry/Harriet, Claire's androgynous best friend. The following dialogue explains how they became friends:

" 'Darling, I know it is hard to listen to all this; it is hard to tell. I have been tempted in my life to think symbol --that what he did to me is but a symbol for what they did to all of us, always bearing in mind that some of us, many of us, also do it to each other. But that's not right. I only suffered what my mother suffered--no more, no less. . . .'

" 'Harry,' Claire said, regarding this peculiar little person across the table from her, delicately sipping his pina colada, 'Harry, you make me want to love you.' "

"No Telephone to Heaven" is an impassioned, obsessive non sequitur, a political, poetical tract stuffed with skewered myth. A novel it's not.

Jamaica, it seems, has some of the most detested and unpleasant tourists in the world. And they're so white . What's worse than a tourist in Jamaica? Hair in your food. A rat in your breadbox. Maybe just perhaps. But Seth Rolbein doesn't waste lyrical energy in doing them in "Sting of the Bee." He just dismisses them. They're idiots.

"Sting of the Bee" is a first novel, sturdy and reliable, pretty in some parts, moving in others, well-constructed, properly made, a little dull but quite nice really, told in a lopsided combination of stilted, decadent English and the lilting dialect of Jamaica. The sunny, slangy rhythms are beautiful and engaging. They're the real joy of this book, which concerns a young man, Marty, reared in America by a snobbish mother, who returns to his homeland to say goodby to his dying father. Mom, who does have her airs, thinks of Jamaica as being a quicksand sort of place, a "debilitating addiction." It was only with great effort that she herself escaped, bringing Marty as a boy to Boston and a sophisticated life. She claims that Marty took to Cambridge "like a fish to water."

Mom doesn't have the gift for the sweet and sonorous phrase, it's clear. She doesn't really approve of her son returning to Jamaica, even for his father's impending death event. She fears that the island will cast its "magician's spell," that he will be seduced by it, "become part of its suspicion and slowness and be no good elsewhere."

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