California Congressman Leo Ryan had been in Guyana to investigate human rights violations at “Jonestown,” the jungle commune established by American cult leader Jim Jones. Jones’ security guards ambushed Ryan and his aides while they attempted to board a pair of small aircraft on a remote jungle airstrip. Bob Brown, an NBC cameraman covering Ryan’s visit, captured the ambush on film before being shot himself.
As horrendous as the ambush was, a far more sinister tragedy would soon emerge.
Jones’s followers, at his urging, committed mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Ade. Babies too young to voluntarily drink the Kool-Ade, and those who resisted, were injected with the poison via syringe. Jones himself was found dead with an apparently self-inflicted bullet wound in the head.
All told, 918 people, including 304 children, died at Jonestown.
Sometimes, thinking about the scale of this tragedy, I tremble. Seriously. How could 900+ people, most apparently willingly, have been induced to drink the Kool-Ade?
Fred D’Aguiar’s spectacular new novel, CHILDREN OF PARADISE (Harper Collins), attempts to answer that question. We get the brutality, the chaos, the attempts at mind control, the delusional paranoia, and the mass hysteria that afflicted the commune, but what I loved most about the novel is its narrative path. The book is only loosely based on the actual events of Jonestown, allowing D’Aguiar to take creative and compelling liberties in the telling of the tragedy.
The Jim Jones-type character, named here as “Father” and “the preacher,” is scantly present during the first third of the novel. Instead, D’Aguiar ushers us into the lives of the commune’s residents: a mother and daughter (Joyce and Trina), two of Trina’s young friends (Rose and Ryan), a pair of guards (Kevin and Eric), the riverboat captain who ferries people to the commune, and a most peculiar gorilla (Adam) who acts as the commune mascot but is later shown as a wonderfully sentient creature with strong attachments to those who bear the brunt of Father’s brutality.
I must confess that, being irrationally drawn to the Great Man theory of history, I was initially disappointed that “Father” was not more present in the opening pages, but by focusing on the other characters, D’Aguiar shows us the consequences of Father’s tyrannical reign. We become emotionally invested in these characters. We care about their plight, their struggles, in a way that would not have been possible had D’Aguiar allowed Father to overwhelm the narrative from the get-go.
I’m a great fan of dystopian fiction, but D’Aguiar paints a dystopia unlike any other I have read before. Reading George Orwell as a teenager was one of the formative events of my life. I love George Saunders. I loved Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning North Korean novel, THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON, yet no other novel has made me think as much about organizations and structures, the individual’s relationships to power, and the yin-yang dichotomy of public vs. private yearnings. D’Aguiar’s commune is vivid, credible, and maddening.
We learn very early that something is horribly amiss at the commune. A teenage prefect charged with keeping order, rats out his mother for mumbling something that contradicts what Father has said.
“A prefect shouts for help to come right away and deal with his rebellious mother. Two guards approach the teenager and his mother. She tries to tell her son to be quiet, that she meant nothing by what she said to him. But the prefect, in keeping with his training to listen and report anything suspicious that he hears, no matter the source, tells the guards… The guards congratulate the prefect on his loyalty to Father, and the commune, over and above any loyalty to blood, and second only in loyalty to the Most High. They grab the woman and march away. The teenager looks satisfied but not completely so. He looks around for someone else, anyone else, nearby to tell him he did the right thing in reporting his mother to the guards.”
As D’Aguiar writes, “It seems ever adult in the commune is bent on emulating the ways of the preacher.”
Characters quickly learn to stifle their private doubts about the fitness of Father’s autocratic rule or risk public beatings. Just as at the real Jonestown, malcontents are flung down cobwebbed wells until they repent.
Young Trina, who must be ten or twelve years old, “has worked out already at her delicate age that everything they do at the commune, each chore or demonstration of loyalty, has to carry with it like a shadow a performance for some other thing that can never be shown.”
“Trina waves at her mother by pretending to wave away a fly. Trina even says, Shoo, fly. And she speaks quite loud. Every muscle in Joyce’s body wants to wave back at Trina, but she knows better to attract the attention of a prefect or guard. Like every parent at the commune, she has to downplay public displays of affection toward her child. Trina belongs less to her and more to everyone in the community.”
Commune residents, including children, are chronically underfed. When a loaf of bread goes missing, guards storm into the dormitories to flush out the culprit. At school, children are ordered to cane-whip the thief, who happens to be their classmate. Trina, whom Father has treated with special attention, resists until she is counseled about the consequences of resisting.
“The head teacher leans in close to Trina’s ear and whispers that this order comes from the preacher, and not to obey it would mean terrible things for a lot of people, not just Trina. The teacher urges Trina to think of her mother. Trina takes the cane and holds it beside her. The cane is as tall as Trina.”
In such an environment, a smile becomes an act of bravery.
Trina “weighs on scales in her mind just how much happiness there is among the children as opposed to misery. This morning is ruled by misery. [One of her classmates] is missing. To get through her day, she decides to smile at as many children as possible.”
Later, while talking with Rose, Trina tells how she is able to survive in the commune. “She says that while the body may be trapped in this place, the mind is always free to roam wherever it feels safe.”
As the novel progresses, the preacher emerges as a central character. Vain, amphetamine-amped and tricked out in dark sunglasses and Elvis-style jumpsuits, he’s prone to blood lust and incoherent rants. We see his grandiosity, his hypocrisy, his self-importance, his love for—if this makes any sense—an ordered chaos. After guards assault one too many children, he orders the children to cane their parents.
Father’s bent on stockpiling vast quantities of cyanide. Though he’s miserly on rations for his flock, those fortunate to be invited into his house “eat fried chicken and cole-slaw, imported apple pie and cream, and drink as much reconstituted Kool-Aid as the can.”
And it is with that casually-thrown “Kool-Aid” reference that we begin to worry about the fate of the commune. Two-thirds through the novel, the endgame becomes clear. Suffering from a persecution complex like no other, Father devises a mass suicide plan should outsiders disrupt his version of “paradise.”
In theory, since we all know what is going to happen, I would have thought that the novel’s tremendous narrative propulsion would wane as we near its finish, but it is to D’Aguiar’s great credit that the last hundred pages are unputdownable. At moments, it seems possible that someone will step forward to put an end to Father’s madness. Adam’s sentient ways, and the protection he offers to the otherwise-doomed children fascinate us, but ultimately—because we care about the characters—it is the drama of who (if anyone) will survive the tragedy that keeps us reading.
Addendum: Okay, don’t take my word about how great this novel is. Go ahead and check out The New York Times’ review.