“All Muscle and Damage”: Dog-Heart by Diana McCaulay

Tomorrow, March 26, 2010, is the launch of Diana McCaulay’s first novel Dog-Heart. I wrote the review below four years ago when i first read the book in manuscript form. Yesterday i did a short interview with Diana about the process of writing this novel; My questions and her responses are presented below the review. The book will be launched at Bookophilia, 92 Hope Road, tomorrow evening at 6.30 pm.

My Review

Kingston, April 23, 2006

Dog-Heart peels back the zinc fence concealing the liminal world of the outcasts of postcolonial development; not just for a hasty peep but for a sustained look at what most of us would prefer to forget exists. Written by an “atypical middle-class Jamaican” attempting to live her life by the Emersonian principle of leaving the world a better place “whether by a garden patch, a happy child or a redeemed social condition” this is a book that could have easily descended into missionary melodrama and bathos.

Instead it is a tightly plotted, muscular narrative recounted mainly through the voice of its young male protagonist–Dex—one of the ubiquitous street kids of Kingston. McCaulay renders his patois-inflected voice vividly, deftly drawing the reader into the brutal shadows of the ghetto; you find yourself literally following Dex and his brother as they negotiate the peril-strewn path of their poverty-stricken existence.

The clumsy though determined intervention of the ‘uptown browning’ into their lives is described through Dex’s eyes. Miss Sahara disapproves of almost everything—“She don’t like it that we t’ief light from public service but she don’t say how we is to pay light bill.” Miss Sahara complains that they watch too much TV and that their mother spends too much money on unnecessary things such as a new dresser from Courts instead of buying books and clothes for the children. Dex despairingly observes that “She don’t understand about respect, how people inna ghetto disrespect you if you don’t have certain t’ings.”

Dexter has little faith in Miss Sahara’s mission to turn them into uptown children. “She think if we learn how to read and count, learn how to behave, get expose to opportunity—she always a talk about opportunity—make uptown friend, then we will be like uptown people.” His cautious teenaged eyes take in everything, processing and assessing with impeccable ghetto logic the hostile environment he faces.

One of the finest touches in this impressive debut novel is the friendship between Dex and Felix, the quadriplegic who is not only wheelchair-bound (“He look like him don’t have muscle”) but whose head needs the perpetual support of a tin can. After his initial revulsion Dex is drawn into a close relationship with the handicapped boy, making a point of protecting and looking out for him, something he himself has lacked all his life. The socially handicapped Dexter and the physically handicapped Felix thus manage to establish a useful though fleeting alliance.

Ever aware of his liminality Dexter inexorably morphs into the thuggish ‘Matrix’ whose overweening ambition is to join one of two warring neighbourhood gangs. Along the way we get to know Dex’s younger brother, the gentle Marlon, his baby sister Lissa and his friend, the dog-hearted Lasco innocuously named after a Jamaican brand of powdered milk. We even get to know and like Arleen, Dexter’s feckless mother, one of the less sympathetic characters in the book, who is forever beating and abusing her children.

Dog-Heart is an uncompromising story imaginatively told; it is a tale of the class imbalance of postcolonial societies, of how vast the gap is between those damned by the (Babylon) system and kept outside and those who reside comfortably inside. The expendability of life in the ghetto and the perpetual injustice meted out to its inhabitants by the state and so-called civil society lie at the heart of this tale of postcolonial darkness.

As Dexter sadly observes:

“This is what everybody inna ghetto know: If anybody want kill you, white man, big man, policeman, area don, gang member, schoolmate, politician, shotta anybody—they will just do it. Nobody can stop them and after, nobody will care. You can t’ink man who do murder will be arrest and put in jail and you, the person who is dead, will be in heaven a look down on them in jail with a whole heap a batty man, but that is not how it will go.”

Not even such limited justice as rejoicing after death in the travails of one’s murderer is available to ghetto people. “Batty man” is colloquial Jamaican for ‘homosexual’; terms such as these require glossing else the foreign reader new to Jamaican culture unnecessarily loses a whole layer of allusion and meaning that serve to add focal depth to the narrative.

Aside from that McCaulay’s sense of irony and humour delicately leavens this tale of what lies on the other side of tourist paradises such as Jamaica inviting the reader into territory you probably would have declined to enter on your own. The novella is expertly constructed, its constituent parts neatly dovetailing into one another.

McCaulay, who wrote a weekly column in the country’s leading newspaper for many years, showcases her formidable writing skills in this ambitious, heart-breaking work to excellent effect. Woven into the story are traumatic events—mob killings, kidnappings–from contemporary Jamaican life that convulsed the nation when they happened, registering as twenty-first century landmarks in the history of its world-renowned violence. For her Jamaican readers these signal additional dimensions of common belonging; the mirror McCaulay relentlessly holds up doesn’t let anyone off the hook, least of all those who read this book without flinching.

The Interview

Kingston, March 24, 2010

How long did it take you to write Dog-Heart Diana? And then after that how long till it was published? Did you ever feel like just giving up?

The first draft took two years to write. The submission process (sending in, rejection, rewrite, sending again) took five years up to the time I had a contract. Then another year and a half to publication. Eight and a half years in all. Yes, I felt like giving up many times. Had no faith in the work at all, at many, many points along the way. But people encouraged me – like Esther Figueroa, you, Kim Robinson, another friend in England, Celia, who has been reading my writing since we were teenagers, so somehow I kept going. I have quantities of never finished manuscripts on my computer, in boxes, in drawers and I was determined to see this one in print..

You had to revise the manuscript several times. What were the kinds of changes publishers asked for?

The eventual publisher, Peepal Tree Press, asked for very few changes – a few language issues, a few places that editor Jeremy Poynting felt did not ring true. He was right in every case. But earlier in the process, various agents and publishers who eventually passed on it had suggested changes…some I adopted, others no. For instance, the first draft of Dog-Heart had four voices – Dexter, Sahara (the two that now survive), but also Sahara’s son Carl, and Dexter’s mother Arleen. An agent who sent me five pages of comments on the early draft suggested these were too many voices, and that I tell the story from only two points of view – Dexter and Sahara. So that’s what I did. I have many chapters of Arleen’s story and Carl’s story in my computer… who knows what I will do with those one day. Some agents didn’t like the Jamaican, felt it was too limiting, but I wasn’t prepared to compromise on that.

How were you able to get into the head of an impoverished street youth? I know you had tried in the nineties, when you wrote a Gleaner column, to help one or two such youth? Is this novel inspired by those attempts? And did you have any success with the boys you tried to rescue from the street?

In a sense, Dog-heart was inspired by my relationship with a family of boys and their mother in the 1990s, my attempts to help, but the events and people in Dog-heart are entirely fictional – nothing in Dog-heart really happened and the people are quite different from that family. But during that period I did observe many aspects of their lives and realized how difficult their circumstances were. It was humbling – people of my class tend to dismiss people like Dexter and his mother, Arleen, as, I don’t know, wasters, wut’less, stupid. But what I saw was something different – I saw people, children, trying their best to survive situations that I was sure would have defeated me. So I started thinking about it, imagining what it would really be like. Dog-Heart also had its genesis in a writer’s workshop at Good Hope, back in 2003 – we were asked to write a short piece from the point of view of someone of a different age, class, race, background and sex – and I wrote what became chapter two of Dog-Heart. I sent it as a short story called Car Park Boy to Caribbean Writer, they published it, and I decided the seeds of a novel were in there. So I kept working on it.

As for the boys I did try to help, that’s a fairly sad story, one I am not sure I am ready to talk about, because it is their story to tell too. I often wonder about what THEY thought at the time. I lost track of the family when I went to study in Seattle in 2000 – but when I came back to Jamaica in 2002, I learned from one of the boys’ teachers that the eldest boy had been killed by the police in a prison riot. And funnily enough, recently a friend encountered the youngest boy – who is now a man – and we are to get together – hasn’t happened yet.

There’s a wonderfully taut scene where Dexter is bouncing a football while being taunted by his new schoolmates. How did you know how to do that? Did you play football yourself? The moment when he raises his eyes to look at the games teacher and the ball finally falls and rolls away was a masterful use of suspense I thought.

I did play football when I was young. My sisters tell me I was unbearably sweaty. But truthfully, I don’t really know where that scene came from, I remember the day I wrote it, and it just appeared in my head, in the very mysterious way such things happen from time to time.

Also how did you come up with the character of Felix the quadriplegic boy stuck in a wheelchair who has to rest his head on a tin-can for support? Felix is a fine foil for Dexter and the growing sympathy between them is very finely developed.

Well, I needed a way to show aspects of Dexter’s character – that he was able to overcome opinions he held (about the “slow” children, for example) and find sympathy and empathy with someone facing greater hurdles, and I thought a boy in a wheelchair might be a good way of doing that…

I particularly like the moments of collision between what I think of as ‘ghetto logic’ and ‘uptown logic’ in the way people’s lives are organized in the novel. So eg. Sarah’s presumptuous and haughty complaints about the way Dexter’s family ‘wastes’ money on a dresser, on TV or other luxuries they can’t ‘afford’ goes to the root of the class divide that governs our lives.

Yes, it was one of the novel’s many challenges – to write about the same events from two different points of view without becoming boring or redundant, and to try and really understand these different ways of looking at the world – Sahara’s point of view was easy for me to imagine, even to feel, of course – but Arleen and Dexter’s much harder. Writing Dog-Heart was really a search for compassion and empathy and understanding in my own heart.

Did you make any earth-shattering discoveries in the process of writing this novel?

Not sure about earth-shattering, Annie! I have many reflections about the process of writing a novel, about developing characters, about the pitfalls of writing a novel with a message – as some early feedback pointed out. I struggled greatly with language – I wanted to write in Jamaican when I was in Dexter’s voice, without making the novel inaccessible to a non Jamaican speaker. I am still not totally satisfied with how that came out. I learned something about what Anthony Winkler calls “trusting the darkness…” often I would go to bed with my characters stuck in some situation, with a feeling of hopelessness about the novel, and I would make sure they were in my mind when I fell asleep, and when I woke up the next morning – answers came to me. I learned to trust that. I learned the value of readers – people who support you – it’s a mistake to let too many people read your early work. Most of all, I learned that writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint, but with determination, patience and a fair bit of pain, it can be done.

Author: ap

writer, editor and avid tweeter

9 thoughts on ““All Muscle and Damage”: Dog-Heart by Diana McCaulay”

  1. But I don’t want to see all of this before I read the book?! (yes, I know, then don’t come to the blog then…not a good answer) I tried to order it yesterday but Amazon telling me 2 to 4 weeks before I get it. A wha’ dat? steeupppss! Enjoy!

  2. “Dog-Heart peels back the zinc fence concealing the liminal world of the outcasts of postcolonial development”

    U there Annie. For once, can we West Indians stop writing about cane field and post colonial this and that. It seems to me like we stuck still. I really want to see something fresh, something other than slave man and woman.

    Annie is it because we r forced to write like this to be West Indian? Are we being forced to live up to a stereotype? Every West Indian novel some how leads me to some dreary slave fire side or some disparity in wealth during the British rule.

    It just seems like if I want to read something fresh in the Caribbean I just have to write it myself.

  3. Whatever gave you the impression that this book is about slavery? Actually its about life in contemporary Jamaica.

    There’s not a single canefield or member of the ‘folk’ in sight. That’s what’s so refreshing about it. So where did you get the idea that this is about a slave fireside or British rule?

    Clearly the meaning of the word ‘postcolonial’ escapes you Peter. a little self-education before you pronounce so definitively next time?

  4. I know what post colonial is Annie, rest assured. I am saying that there is a style in the Caribbean that’s stale.

    I did not read the book but I used it as a catalyst for comment, I noticed in the West Indies and Guyana to some extent this raw nerve when ever a differing thought is brought forward. It is in our politics, in the way we interact with each other and even in ur answer to my comment, yet we ask, whats wrong with us. I guess Raymond was soooo right.

  5. Peter,

    isn’t it problematic to project onto a book you haven’t read some sort of pre-fabricated rant that seems to be stuck in your craw? You mentioned a number of tropes that have nothing to do with Dog-Heart and used those to broadside writing in the Caribbean. You may or may not be right about that. I have little interest in making such sweeping claims. I have said what I said about this particular book.
    Ultimately comments like yours will only carry weight if you can show us the kind of writing you bemoan the lack of Peter.

    The Great Caribbean Novel is no doubt yet to come. Stop sitting at Ramcharitar’s feet and write it.

  6. As the editor/publisher of both Dog-heart and Raymond Ramcharitar’s Island Quintet, and a great admirer of both, isn’t the important point that both books tell truths about aspects of Caribbean reality that need exploring? They do so in different ways, but in ways that successfully convey the writer’s individual vision, and isn’t this something to be celebrated? Isn’t it important that the kind of dialogue that existed implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, among the novels of Lamming, Naipaul and Harris in an earlier generation continues in the fiction of the present? I defer to no one in my respect for what Ramcharitar is doing, but it can never be the whole truth or the only aesthetic way. What struck me very forcibly about Diana Macaulay’s novel was that though it was telling a truth about Jamaica’s race and class situation that was told in the novels of Mais 60 years ago, or in Patterson 40 years ago, she was telling it in a fresh way and for her own time.

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