March 30, 2007

Over-the-top Jamestown parody

'Jamestown' by Matthew Sharpe"Jamestown" is a wild, violent, mordantly hilarious retelling of how the first permanent English settlement in the New World came into being, and unlike the version extolled in countless middle-school textbooks, Matthew Sharpe doesn't gloss over its influence on those who were already there. Indeed, the Indians' perspective on the events of 400 years ago is what gives Sharpe's satire such ferocious bite.

Set in the indeterminately near future, a ragtag band of employees of the Manhattan Company (roughly analogous to the colonial-era venture capitalist Virginia Company of London) leaves the city in an armored bus as the Chrysler Building disappears in a cloud of dust. Their mission is to cross the wasteland between New York and Virginia, make contact with the local Indian population and exploit their natural resources. The settlers prove to be as dangerous to one another as the hazards of I-95, but they manage to reach the Chesapeake, establish a camp of sorts and prepare to make contact with the Indians.
Matthew Sharpe's 'Jamestown'A key element of Sharpe's beguiling, but ultimately baffling, satire is to refashion historical figures into contemporary caricatures. Jamestown's leader, John Smith, has become Jack Smith, a mechanic responsible for maintaining the bus; Algonquian chief Powhatan is recast as a lethargic, fat patriarch; Pocahontas (nicknamed "Poke a Huntress," among other, bawdier names), becomes a gabby, sex-starved "irreverent scamp"; her husband, the tobacco farmer John Rolfe, is reimagined as the book's narrator, Johnny Rolfe, the Manhattan Company's designated "communications officer" who is recording the events on his PDA. New to the story is Powhatan's right-hand man, a psychiatrist named Sidney Feingold (sometimes referred to as "Sit Knee Find Gold").

For the most part, Sharpe hews to what details are known from the historical record. Nearly half of the original Jamestown colonists were self-described "gentlemen" who knew little about surviving in the wilderness. Centuries later, the suit-wearing refugees are no different, derided by the natives as a "pack of weaklings" without "a single skill to live beyond their fortress town up north."
Novel 'Jamestown' is history as parody in an over-the-top styleLife is hard for the reluctant warriors of Manhattan Co., sent by its CEO, James Stuart (think King James I), to plunder the riches of the red-skinned tribe of Powhatan and his daughter Pocahontas.

They have red skins because of the SPF-90 sunscreen they slosh on, not because they are of American-Indian descent. They use bows and arrows and live in huts, but communicate with wireless devices. The centuries collapse madly into each other in this story, and no one seems to notice or care.

Pocahontas is the star of "Jamestown." Her inimitable voice blends Valley Girl (if the valley were the Shenandoah), MySpace chatter, IM-ing, hip-hop, ribald rhymes and "Dear Diary" musings, and her segments are by far the most fun to read.

This is history as parody, black, bloody and biting. Sharpe's over-the-top style is the book's greatest virtue and most self-indulgent vice: Too much of a good thing can be, sometimes, just too much.

No comments: