Reptile metaphysics

By Anu Lakhan

Crocodile, by Anthony C. Winkler
Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 978-1-4050-6373-9, 282 pp

A jilted woman of small means and significant rear end, a respectable rural matron, a Pentecostal minister, a Catholic priest, a madman, and a crocodile walk into a bar. Not a real bar, of course, and not just because joke formulae are not meant to be taken literally; with the exception of the first-mentioned lady, none of the others are likely to desire or gain access to the average rural Jamaican bar. Who ever heard of a Pentecostal minister at a rum shop? Really, some fiction writers take things too far.

Anthony Winkler’s new novel, Crocodile, is very Anthony Winkler. Take its hilarity on any level you want. As with techno-games, start from where you’re comfortable. The more you engage, the more you’ll see. If you don’t see more than a very satisfying jokiness, enjoy it. There are worse things in life than laughing yourself silly. And if it seems like there’s more, you might want to decide if you care to buck up religion, socio-economic expectations, sex, human-vehicular psychology, and human-deity vendettas. Still, the key is not to over-study it. I fear for the author. Will Winkler scholars prod and pester every sentence until everything is terribly post-colonially significant and not too much fun? A sorry pass for a white Jamaican who says he “doesn’t know his black side from his backside.”

About the eponymous crocodile: he’s a bit like God. Of the deus abscondita variety. “I know what I’ll do today,” I imagine our reptilian or heavenly friend saying. “I will lurk in the waters of a St Catherine river and menace the residents just by being. I won’t have to lift a claw or bare a single tooth.” According to a university professor, the wrath of the constabulary will befall anyone with designs to harm or kill the crocodile. The beast belongs to the government of Jamaica and must be viewed as a civil servant. But then, in the Caribbean, the capricious injustice of unknown forces is well known. We’ve not been very lucky.

Jilted Josephine of the perfect teeth and ample behind decides to bring an end to her earthly suffering through death by crocodile. Her faithless lover, one Wilbert Jenkins (saluted in Josephine’s correspondence as “Dear Dog”), has abandoned her for America and that most treasured of things which marriage to an American woman can bring: a green card. Like any self-respecting heroine, Josephine has no money and no prospects. It’s all because of God. God has issues with her. Why? Because she is black? Because she is poor? Does it matter? The point is, God has it in for her, and so she will throw her wretched life to the state-employed crocodile.

Poor Josephine. Truck, the madman-in-residence, rescues her. Truck thinks he’s a truck. A Leland (although there’s Fargo on his mother’s side of the family). The insane of West Indian literature tend to be the most sensible and sensitive of all authors’ creatures, great and small. Truck is no exception. Josephine rages over the undesired rescue and the unfairness of having to sleep in a cold, wet hut instead of being happy and dead. “Life rough, Miss Josephine,” Truck calls consolingly after her, “but crocodile is not the answer.” Well.

Perhaps crocodile is not the answer. Perhaps crocodile is the question. Crocodile or not-crocodile may be all the philosophical wanderings of every great thinker from Aesop to Bill Maher.

The Rev. Knibb might well place himself in the middle of such murky ideas. One minute he can be found lamenting the decline of smiting in contemporary Jamaica, longing for the day when he could declare, “I smite thy rass!” and it be done. But then, can any man, even a Pentecostal reverend, give his attention to conjugating the word “smite” while simultaneously engaging in the well-established endeavour of maid-grinding?

Doretta Knibb, wife of the reverend, is mortified and exhausted by her husband’s amorous attentions. She is also as confused as anyone else might be as to why the words “bulla” and “pear” are the ones she screams out at her moment of ecstasy. Crocodile is definitely not the answer for her. But Josephine is. Down on her luck, furious with the God who won’t cut her any slack, healthy and disease-free, Josephine is the answer to Doretta’s troubles. No one could judge a decent, middle-aged woman for taking this cast-off of God and crocodile into her home as housekeeper and harlot.

Hard to swallow? About as hard to swallow as garden-variety Protestant communion wafer or Catholic consecrated host as rendered through the mysteries of transubstantiation.

And so, give or take a few chapters, this is where our story begins. God must be made to answer for why he has so ill-used Josephine. When he refuses to speak to her, neither in his incarnation as ghost or host, Josephine takes matters into her own hands. Or, not to put to fine a point on it, in her knickers. She begins to purloin the wafers at mass (only the good Catholic ones, not the useless stale-bread ones of other churches) for the sole purpose of ensconcing God in her baggy.

The problem with Jamaica, Rev. Knibb bemoans, is how easily one slips from the sublime to the ridiculous. No one writing about the Caribbean, not even Sir Vidia (in his days of such trivium), can make that segue as effortlessly and effectively as Winkler. The writing is thick. Too thick sometimes, like one of two extremes: a new writer who doesn’t know what to do with all he has and is loathe to part with any of it; or one who has done much and doesn’t know where, or if there will be time, to put it anywhere else. Good thick is when the density of laughter is almost unbearable. My mother had asthma attacks over such things.

Now, doesn’t anyone want to know where the priest comes in?


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2010

Anu Lakhan is a writer of fiction, poems, and essays about books and food. She lives in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Her illustrated survey of Trinidad street food was published in 2009.