AS FLIES TO WHATLESS BOYS
|BOCAS PRIZE FOR CARIBBEAN LITERATURE 2014
In 1845 London, an engineer, philosopher, philanthropist, and bold-faced charlatan, John Adolphus Etzler, has invented machines “powered by the immense forces of Mother Nature” that he thinks will transform the division of labor and free all men. He forms a collective called the Tropical Emigration Society (TES), and recruits a variety of London citizens to take his machines and his misguided ideas to form a proto-socialist, utopian community in the British colony of Trinidad.
Among his recruits is a young boy (and the book’s narrator) named Willy. As TES begins its overseas voyage to Trinidad, Etzler recedes quickly to the backdrop, and Willy’s tale takes precedence—in particular his head-over-heels fall for the enthralling and wise Marguerite Whitechurch. Coming from the gentry, Marguerite is a world away from Willy’s laboring class. Speech also divides them, as Marguerite lacks vocal cords—she communicates with Willy in writing. As the voyage continues, and their love for one another strengthens, Willy and Marguerite prove themselves to be true socialists, their actions and adventures standing in stark contrast to Etzler’s disconnected theories.
When they arrive at Port of Spain, Willy must part from Marguerite and travel with the men of TES to build the society’s future home—in a remote swamp, only accessible by boat, called Chaguabarriga. Far from realizing their leader’s dreams of a tropical paradise, the pioneers never even get a chance to unpack their Satellite, Etzler’s “self-powered” machine that will mow down the rainforest and plant their first crops. Within weeks the majority of them are stricken with the “Black Vomit.” And now they’re trapped, without a boat to return to civilization . . .
Willy and his father—together with their helpmate, an African named John—make a last-ditch attempt to refurbish a schooner that has washed up. But before the ship can be launched Willy’s father contracts the dreaded disease, moving the story towards its heroic, tragic conclusion: Willy’s account of transporting his father out of the jungle on a makeshift stretcher carried by himself, John, and two Warrahoon Indians. For a day and a night they haul him over the mountains of the Northern Range, across the breadth of Trinidad, back to Port of Spain and his family, only to spend his final few hours with them. This epic trek also brings fifteen-year-old Willy to the most trying decision of his life—whether to return to England with Marguerite, or become the head of his family in their new home. Antoni’s tragic historical novel, accented with West Indian cadence and captivating humor, provides an unforgettable glimpse into nineteenth-century Trinidad & Tobago.
PRAISE FOR AS FLIES TO WHATLESS BOYS
Selected as a Best Novel for 2013:
Edwidge Danticat, in the New Yorker
Masie Cochran, Associate Editor, Tin House Books and Literary Journal
Shivanee Ramlochan, book reviewer at The Trinidad Guardian
“William’s account of young love attests to Antoni’s fluency in the poetry of nostalgia. In words as vibrant as the personalities he creates, Antoni deftly captures unconquered territories and the risks we’re willing to take exploring them.”
“The emotional influence of Willy’s narrative—his loving descriptions of the people who surround him—is profoundly effective . . . Strikes strong emotional chords.”
“Antoni . . . has written a novel epic in scope…driven by outbursts of fine writing.”
“A marvel of a novel, layered in histories, Robert Antoni’s unique and engaging As Flies to Whatless Boys is an unforgettable and matchless work of fiction. A crowning achievement in an exceptional body of work by this amazingly talented writer.”
“As Flies to Whatless Boys is an inventive, witty, comic romance that is as much about history and adventure as it is about language. With virtuosic attention to language, Robert Antoni delightfully explores the written word in all its forms—as letters, as e-mails, as reportage, as narration, as archives—to tell stories, to paint characters, to demonstrate the range and integrity of English and its dialects, and to edge us closer to ourselves as equally human beings.”
“As Flies to Whatless Boys is a brilliant novel that is rivetingly localized in a distant time and an untouched place, and yet somehow speaks vibrantly to this present age and to the universal human condition. Robert Antoni is a treasure of our literary culture.”
“Robert Antoni doesn’t make giant steps. He makes quantum leaps past whatever we called metafiction to the same territory as Richard Powers and David Foster Wallace. But like those men and unlike nearly everybody else, he never forgets that at the core of it all you’ve still got to tell a rip-roaring story.”
“Like the preserved hummingbirds at its center, this novel is a tender and strange object, referencing something no longer with us, but maintained in its beauty as art.”
“Robert Antoni is one of the great comic writers of the New World—that sweaty, sun-blasted, eternally baroque, dystopia where our tears, issued from laughter or sorrow or more often both, have the potency of overproof rum. As Flies to Whatless Boys is a mishmash merriment of an adventure story, an island of luscious prose in a sea of delight.”
“Robert Antoni makes stories out of history and history out of stories. In his nineteenth-century colonial tale of John Adolphus Etzler and his utopian idea to create a paradise in Trinidad, an adventure and family story unfolds . . . The tale is textured with the rich and differing rhythms of Trinidadian speech registers and illustrated with maps, typographic hieroglyphs, and footnotes. This ornate but clear design is interrupted by a twenty-first-century narrative of a quite different comic-erotic story, told in letters to the ‘writer’ from his National Archive ‘researcher,’ Ms. Ramsol. Antoni is an audacious storyteller, mining his very own language and ways of telling from the linguistic cornucopia of Trinidad. His story is moving and is also hilarious.”
“In words as vibrant as the personalities he creates, Antoni deftly captures unconquered territories and the risks we’re willing to take to explore them”