“People who say they don’t have a choice just too coward to choose.”


If you’re interested in politics, history, language and just great storytelling, I can’t recommend this highly enough. It reminded me of a handful of great writers including Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Hubert Selby Jr, James Ellroy and perhaps most of all, that Dostoevsky fella. It’s shot through with gnomic wisdom and existential philosophy (the title of this post is a quote from a doomed smalltime gangbanger by way of Sartre). But it’s also utterly unique.

Based on true history, it starts out among the terrifying turmoil of Jamaica’s ghettos in the late 70s – the political infighting, violent gang warfare and drug-related anarchy. It uses the return of Bob Marley for a peace concert and the subsequent assassination attempt on him as an anchor point. From there it fans out across continents and decades. The Jamaican gangs get involved with the Mexican Medelin drug cartel – cue Hart To Hart opening credits montage VO: “…and when they met, it was moi-dah” – and the story moves to New York in the 80s at the genesis of the crack cocaine epidemic.

There’s plenty of brutal violence – and many more than ‘seven killings’ – but none of it could be described as ‘senseless’ and it doesn’t come cheap. Unlike the sometimes cartoonish violence of Tarantino movies, it’s very real and dark; but in common with Tarantino, the most shocking thing about it is how mundane it is.

It’s a little tricky to get into and, owing to the large cast of characters, a bit discombobulating at times, but ultimately ultra-addictive and very rewarding: it took me three months to read the first third and a week to read the last two thirds. The scope and ambition of the book are epic, the juggling of so many different voices while moving the story forward, sprinkling insights and dropping wisdom throughout.

And when I try to boil down what it’s really about, separately from the subjects it covers and events it dramastises, it makes me think of that infamous David Foster Wallace quote: “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”