The jacket blurbs for Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica insist this book is a twentieth-century classic. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Classic. You’d rather eat glass than read a classic. Classics mean pain – the kind you feel when you’re bopped on the back of the head for dozing off during a lecture on Beowulf.
In terms of torture categories, reading High Wind isn’t as painful as listening to your lisping high school teacher recite the opening The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English. In fact, the work is still a pretty good read even though more than seventy-five years have passed since its original publication. In terms of plot, the book provides a Monty-Pythonesque treatment of the pirate life during the 1800s and then saddles these commedia del arte heroes with a herd of children to babysit. Ultimately, it ends with a loony trial scene that as campy as anything dreamed up by Gilbert and Sullivan.
Inserted within the slapstick are passages of stunning poetry as stylistically adroit as any found within one of those chick tomes that earned the Oprah Book Club seal of approval. Hughes was a mystagogue of the splendors of life at sea and of the landscape of the Caribbean islands. You’ll be calling your travel agent to book the next flight to Jamaica after reading his description of Exeter Rock.
Comedy and poetry aside, however, the feature that sets this book apart is its intriguing presentation of the mental architecture of children – stream of consciousness is a hard hat trick to pull off when you’re doing adults; to do the inner world of an eight-year old as convincingly as Hughes does here is the writing equivalent of taking home the Stanley Cup. I don’t know of anyone who does a better job of evoking the dreamy netherworld that lies between childish fantasies and maturing rationality. Nor can I think of writer who is a better cartographer of the psychological chasm between adults and their progeny.
Mostly High Wind is a vintage blend, but there is an aspect of this work that has not aged well. While Hughes’ characterization of Europeans is often innovative, his handling of other races never rises beyond the caricatures of the period. The scene where the half-witted darkies are cowering in the basement of their colonial paterfamilias is especially cringe-worthy. Fortunately, this content makes up only about two percent of the book and is probably no more egregious than stereotypes found in other fiction of the period. However, if you belong to the camp that boycotts Huckleberry Finn because of the handling of Jim, then you’d want to pass by High Wind, too.
It may be a bit of a stretch to dub A High Wind in Jamaica a classic. Fitzgerald and Hemingway were the literary giants of the 1920s, and Richard Hughes does not come close to either of these writers in stylistic achievement or in the elucidation of the human condition. However, if you’ve already read The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises, you could do worse than to while away a few hours reading this book.