Great reading experiences often have a sense of serendipity: a friend throws an extra novel on a pile she’s lending me, I pull another recommended book of poems from the shelf at the front of the library; in this instance, I found The Duppy working my way through the Akashic Books’ back catalog.
Reading Anthony Winkler’s The Duppy, first published in 1996, captured all of the best aspects of serendipity. The novel is astoundingly funny.
Taddeus Baps, the owner of a country store in Jamaica, wakes up one morning to find himself a Duppy (a Jamaican spirit prone to mischief, especially whoopee on the legs of church ladies) his earthly body crumpled on the floor.
Baps was a distinguished curmudgeon of particular tastes. He dislikes socialists, minibuses, “giving sugar on credit,” idlers, fatties, and taxes. He loves “pum-pum,” his hood, and putting shiftless workers in line.
The term Duppy reached something like the mainstream when Bob Marley released the song “Duppy Conqueror,” but for some reason this novel exists outside the American mainstream.
Anthony C. Winkler is unquestionably accepted as a great Caribbean and Jamaican voice (one blurb on the book jacket calls him the Mark Twain of Jamaica) yet he doesn’t have the readership he deserves. The Duppy is expansive. It’s packed tight with jokes, delivered in that inimitable Jamaican patois; but it’s also expansive in concept. Winkler’s comic depictions of heaven and earth almost reach a high sci-fi level of world building. God makes an appearance, as does a Philosopher, who unfortunately, refuses to believe in the heaven he currently inhabits. All said, the humor is surprising, and fresh, and absorbing.
Winkler’s peers are the great humorists: James Thurber, S.J Perlman, George S. Kaufman, Jack Handey, Woody Allen… And it is absolutely accurate to call this one of the great comic novels, if not the great comic novel. Baps recalls Yossarian, Yon Yonson, Zazie, Ignatius J. Reilly, Herzog, and all the rest of the great schlemiels. And Winkler’s jokes are indelible: Baps must crawl through a marshy culvert to reach heaven; he is forced to choose to keep or shed his “hood” at the Heavenly Gates; he wages war against socialism and shiftlessness in heavenly folk, nailing a sign beneath a money tree: NOTICE TO THE PUBLIC. PRIVATE MONEY TREE! NO CLIMBING. NO FLYING. NO PICKING. BY ORDER. TADDEUS BAPS, ESQ; prude Americans can barely stand a heaven that doesn’t mete out punishment to idlers, and so they take to self-discipline and reenactments of the fire and brimstone as described by Jonathan Edwards.
I’ll stop before revealing too many punchlines, but they keep coming. Pound for pound the novel is lean and unrelenting. It brought tears to my eyes. The Duppy exudes a sense of unworldliness; read it, it’s a piece of heaven.