The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Some thoughts on “Black Lightning” by Roger Mais

Posted on: March 12, 2007

Black Lightning, the last of Roger Mais’ novels, is stylistically a combination of The Hills Were Joyful Together and Brother Man. It borrows the episodic feel of the first while retaining the narrative cohesiveness of the second. Unlike the others it is set in a nameless rural district in Jamaica, and also lacks an overt political overtone. He still explores the myriad facets of human relationships–the tension, struggle, love and succour–among his cast of characters within a small community; and considers man’s position in the cosmos, the question of how much control one can have over one’s nature and destiny, this time through the eyes of an artist.

Jack, the main figure of the story, is a blacksmith as his father before him and also a sculptor. He’s a respected figure in the area who goes to church often enough and always pays his dues. Bess is one of his neighbours, an anxious, superstitious woman who often looks after the house for him, cleaning and cooking meals. Her daughter Miriam is 19 years old, ready to come into her own but is often squelched by Bess’ overprotective behaviour. Glen is Jack’s employee at the smithy and general handy boy: he takes care of Jack’s horse Beauty and chops firewood for the house. He is in a relationship with Miriam, but they are ever heedful of her watchful Mother. Amos is the outcast of the community, an accordion player only befriended by Jack who he worships.

The novel is framed by a cluster of three scenes that occur in the forest at the beginning and end. At the beginning is a tense scene between Glen and Miriam, each trying to discern what the other is thinking and feeling without giving up their own position of power. Miriam missed a night time rendezvous because she was helping Jake in his art room and Glen is upset. He is aloof when she first approaches him and pretends that her yet unexplained absence did not bother him. Miriam suspects that he is jealous and eventually teases it out of him, breaking his cool. But it goes back and forth as she suspects he may have met another girl there, and though he assures her whatever other girls may try to do, none hold his interest, he stubbornly stalls in granting Miriam that same trust. Each of them tries to get a handle on his and her own emotions and yearns to be more readily forgiving and easy going but pride, anger or an innate sense of self-preservation gets in the way, muddling their words and actions.

Bess comes trumping through the woods, searching for Miriam about whose virtue she seems constantly worried, and meets up on Amos alone with his accordion, smoking a cigarette, trying to enjoy his solitude. He is instantly on the offensive, eager to get rid of her and she replies in kind, threatening to “box your headside for you”, unfazed The exchange reveals Amos misanthropic tendencies, which we later learn were caused by a painful past in which he was shunned and rejected for his physical deformities, a slightly lame leg and a hunched back.

Then we come upon Estella, Jake’s wife, and her lover Steve. He is leaving the town tonight and wants her to go with him. She is torn between her obligation to her husband who she esteems and Steve who she loves and who gives her the emotional support she no longer gets at home. As is typical in Mais’ novels the “other man” never appears to be as decent as the woman’s partner. Steve is unwilling to understand or validate the depth of her emotional conflict, nor is he hesitant in hurting or trying to manipulate her feelings to show the weakness in her marriage and assure himself about which man she prefers. Despite making Estella sympathetic we are not persuaded to believe that the matter is any less black and white than the community sees it: that she lacks good judgement and is leaving a good thing for something quite suspect.

For everyone else does know about or at least suspect her of adultery, except Jake. On that same day Jake invites Amos over for dinner, wanting to share his company and to ease things between he and Estella, who both do not get along. Amos is unwilling, at first but he can never hold out against Jake. Throughout the story he is described as being “obedient…like a patient dog waiting for his cue” and other servile terms. Unfortunately the evening takes a turn for the worse. Using the excuse of a headache Estella does not eat with them and when Jake goes to check on her afterwards all he sees is a note. She has left him.

So begins Jake’s slow decline. He is utterly shocked and bewildered by this turn of events. He turns to a familiar bible story that takes on new significance: Samson and his betrayal by Delilah. He is intrigued by what is not explicated about the nuances of their relationship, at Samson’s weakened state after, the loss of his strength and sight, and how he sought a resolution. These thoughts became tangled into his current project that he had been working on for month’s, a life-size sculpture of Samson. From there they begin to consume his thoughts and his life.

In scenes with Amos we see his thoughts becoming more morbid. In one conversation at his smithy he expresses distaste and disapproval over Amos’ choice of news and manner of delivering it, his malicious satisfaction. First it is the attempted suicide of a murderer who had killed his “paramour” and an incident in which Jackson’s leg was broken when he fell off his mule, of which he often bragged. Yet later in the same conversation Jake brings up the story of Samson and Delilah, musing that Samson was right in bringing down the temple, describing his mass murder and suicide as courageous. When Amos suggests that the suicide could instead show cowardice, Jake says he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Mais notes that he said this “somewhat irreverently” but as one reads on one cannot help but think that this opinion hardens into something more concrete.

In the same scene he also lectures Amos on the futility of his “quarrel with life itself”.

‘You can’t get anywhere by just hating it, pardner, that’s all. Just trying to hit back at it all the time won’t get you anywhere.’
Jake said: ‘You want people to love you…don’t stop me…yes, you do…and all you ever got instead was kicks, and that turned you sour.’
‘You can just quite being sorry for me, I ain’t sorry for myself,’ said Amos, scowling at him.
And after he stopped speaking, his mouth still went on working, as though there was plenty more behind if only he could find the words.

But as the story continues we will see Jake blighted with a similar circumstance and devolving into a very similar mentality.

Mais is fond of setting up these contradictions, ironies and reversals. Farther on we find Miriam helping Jake while he works on his sculpture, holding the lamp for him in the dark so he might see. She is confused about Glen, unsure whether to stick to the traditional moral code and refrain from having sex with him or place no bars on her emotional and physical desires because she loves him. She starts to ask him, but realizes he is too absorbed in his craft to pay any attention to her questions. In fact she never gets to ask him, and later in the novel will turn to the most unlikely figure for support, understanding and advice. Jake single-mindedly works on his sculpture, “the most important thing left to him in life now”, straining for a concept that is slipping away from him. At times he feels it is his hands that are failing him and at others his weakening artistic vision. He exerts such tremendous effort that, in an ambiguously written moment, it seems as if he that he lost most of his sight completely.

It is not explicitly stated whether this loss is to be taken figuratively or literally but it works on both levels. It can be a foreboding of the future moment when he is actually struck blind by lightning, an omen. Or it can be a metaphor for his own blurred vision. Earlier on he did internal self-analysis of why he was so fond of such a negative person like Amos, when he ultimately felt very ambiguous towards him. He concluded that their bond was “forged out of his own strength and the other’s weaknesses”. He was the rock against which Amos cowered, providing aid and shelter. But Amos coincidentally points out, referring to Estella’s adultery, that the only “difference between us we get it in the neck different ways”. He is not entirely wrong: no matter how Jake rationalizes it, he is dependent on Amos for some things. Theirs is a friendship, after all, and it is a mischaracterization to consider this a “weakness”. Whatever Amos’ flaws are, his need for friendship is not one of them. But as Jake sees it this weakness is something to be feared, considering that one day he could find himself similarly weak and dependent on someone else. Unfortunately for him that day did quickly arrived.

On a dark night, with a rain storm in the offing, thunder and lightning in the air, Jake takes Amos up to his art room to view his unfinished Samson. It’s a figure of him after he was enslaved by the Philistines, his eyes plucked out, bent over as if carrying a great burden, leaning on a small boy. In the conversation we see Jake expounding on how, through his art, he is trying to embody his own questions on how to deal with the “mess” of life, how people manage their suffering, their pains, and for what purpose, in hope of what ends when they themselves cannot see a resolution in sight.

‘Look, Amos, if you could gather up all the suffering there is in the world…of all the folks who had lost their way in some kind of darkness, and of all who have known any kind of lack that human flesh and spirit can know…take all that suffering, and add it up…you would get something like that–that hopeless, uneven slump of the shoulders, that face. Eh?

[..]

But to what end, Amos? Where does the finger point? Down what blind road…through what blank wall…to what? Where will he take that burden to its last resting-place, and set it down? And be restored to himself again, whole? That’s what it is, Amos. That’s what it calls for, you understand? And it will not come. Something else, but not that.’

The storm outside gets closer and closer. The flash from the lightning is so close it brightens the entire room and, after several blocked attempts, Amos, who is afraid of lightning, escapes from the room, descending the ladder quickly. Jake follows more slowly, pausing on the ladder, in the chaos of the storm. Then he is struck by lightning.

__________

I have a truck load more to write and I do need to get it all out of my head or I’ll never get any rest. This entry is long enough and I haven’t posted anything of substance in a while, so here you go. I dread writing more about it, to be honest, as this was a labour to birth. I need a cinnamon bun.

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