Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown is defiantly not a historical novel; it is a brazen back-to-the-future plunge into the present, mixing period details with anachronistic abandon, and charting the decline of civilization—namely, ours—with an anarchic glee fueled by moral outrage that eventually eases into bemused resignation. Amid the ear-shattering awfulness of so many contemporary American discourses, from the geopolitical to gimmick techno-talk, Sharpe squeezes poetry from gadgetry and jerks. “I’m reclining on my bunk,” notes one of a band of colonial brutes, “caressing the small, soft qwerty keys of my wireless device.”
The Sleeping Father, Sharpe’s sleeper lit hit of 2004, portrays dysfunctional suburban family dynamics through seamless perspective shifts and language often tragicomically ill-suited to communication. In Jamestown, which makes landfall exactly 400 years after the founding of the actual colony (and arguably the swampy start of the U.S.), Sharpe has composed a jazz symphony of a novel out of American voices and violence, exchanging suburbia for the sprawl of history and apocalypse.
The settlers in Sharpe’s version of his-story (a narrative very much about the afflictions of males) are a group of men escaping New York City down I-95 in a beat-up bus. Behind them, the Chrysler Building has collapsed, the city’s water and food supply are contaminated, and the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan are locked in a fierce war over who knows what, exactly, but resulting in the bleak black comedy of archly mock-historical lines like: “I was surprised to encounter Chris Newport… whose left arm, you may recall, Sir, you severed with your Glock on the last day of the Battle of Joralemon Street.”
Johnny Rolfe, one of the book’s two principal narrators among many, and the clan’s “communications specialist,” reports to us, his unseen and possibly nonexistent readers, via the aforementioned portable qwerty device. Life on Rolfe’s bus is dominated by violence and dread. “I don’t like a bus of guys,” he deadpans after yet another bloody altercation among his fellow men. “Is there any bus of guys on which a man can hug and feed another soup without first having sliced his face?” Don DeLillo once suggested that his novels might be grimly unreadable without their flashes of humor. Throughout Sharpe’s graphically brutal scenes, the violence is rendered in visual gags reminiscent of hardcore slapstick—a Jackass for the Jacobean set—and framed in ironic lines of whiplash humor. When the first attack by the natives (would-be Indians, it later turns out, reddened by sunscreen abuse) launches, the arrows “sprang into being in other guys’ body parts—hands, beards, knees” like Wile E. Coyote getting barbed by the natives.
A few sentences later, our communications man Rolfe reflects: “They did with their bows what I’d been trying to do with my wireless device: send a message, instantly and invisibly, across a vast amount of space.” Historians and aficionados of Jamestown lore will recognize Rolfe as the real-life 17th-century tobacco planter who, despite all the Captain John Smith/Pocahontas soap opera mythology promulgated by Disney (the novel calls him ‘Jack Smith’ and sometimes ‘Jack’s Myth’), wed the most famous pop-cultural icon of Native America—Pocahontas—variously identified in Sharpe’s pages through gleeful, wise-guy deconstructions as ‘Poke-a-huntress’ and… well, use your imagination. Rolfe may be the novel’s designated communications specialist, but Pocahontas is its Great Communicator, the whirling dervish at the center of the book, and perhaps Sharpe’s greatest creation thus far.
Subchapters alternate between voices, with Rolfe and Pocahontas at the center, and concentric rings spiraling outward to include prodigal son John Ratcliffe, his sexy mother back in Manhattan, Smith himself, analyst and spiritual adviser Sidney Feingold and his aggressively erotic part-Japanese wife, Charlene Kawabata Feingold, and others. But Sharpe’s Pocahontas comprises the book’s heart, soul, and sometimes bleeding body. She comes on like a hurricane, blogging for all to see (“To the excellent person I know is reading this,” she begins), full of yearning, fearlessly recounting her first period, her entanglements in lust and self-loathing, and her love/hate/sadness toward men, particularly her own sleepy father, Powhatan, oversized embodiment of “patriarch,” chief of his tribe. The voice of Pocahontas is the novel’s most melodious and warmly Whitmanesque, singing of puberty, the stupidity of humanity, the banal brevity of life on earth, and the need to celebrate it. Through Pocahontas and Johnny Rolfe, we get a love story, an unlikely and comical courtship via Instant Messages and e-mails that nonetheless edges the story toward genuine longing, as both parties seek to transcend the imposed exoticism of their lusts.
The plot moves deathward, toward the failure of colonization (think Iraq), toward the nightmare of hegemony (think 9/11), and toward the absurdity and desperation we all live with today: the dream that technology—in the shape of hybrid cars, broadband access, white noises—might stop a Greenland iceberg from melting us into oblivion. Jamestown is relentlessly contemporary, because we are brutally, even stupidly, historical.
In a novel of broad-stroke ambition and reach, there is the occasional overextended joint—the pages of ping-ponging dialogue that volley a tad too many times, for example, or wordplay that comes off as clever or coy. But as I leaf through the heavily dog-eared pages of my review copy, it’s hard to find a page that doesn’t afford dollops of pleasure, of pain—and the hard-won pathos of a people, like us, going mad with grief.