By Jamestown's penultimate chapter, the roster of the dead includes a dozen colonists, a few natives, "numerous fops," and "most men's best intentions." The 1607 Virginia settlement from which Matthew Sharpe's postmodern novel takes its name saw a proportionally similar mortality rate in its first years. But the novel's list adds desperate capitalists in search of oil to sustain an embattled Manhattan, and Indians whose red skin derives from super-strength sunblock, both of whom manage only a few moments of real communication in their post-apocalyptic lifeboat adrift on the waves of history. Retelling the story of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, Sharpe creates some clever surprises and develops a few memorable voices, but his conception is simultaneously too sweeping and too fragmented, and the quality of his prose suffers along with the novel's narrative drive.
The men who pile on an armored bus and flee through the Lincoln Tunnel are seemingly unaware of the history they're repeating, although they possess a working knowledge of e-mail, firearms, advertising, organizational philosophy, the interstate highway system, and alcoholism. When they meet Powhatan's tribe and attempt to negotiate for the mineral rights to their land, they're taken in by a group of fakers who pretend not to speak English while administering Rorschach tests and communicating via Blackberry. Rolfe, the main "white" narrator, sends out despairing messages to an unknown audience while he observes madness and violence overtaking his already-deranged fellow colonists. Meanwhile, Pocahontas, a precocious 19-year-old with her feeble father wrapped around her finger, negotiates her delayed entrance to womanhood while playing coy yet naïve games with the hapless visitors. Her romantic connection to Rolfe occurs more in cyberspace than in the physical world—GreasyBoy and CornLuvr arranging assignations over IM.
It would all be high farce if it weren't so grim and blood-soaked. Sharpe seems to be aiming at a marriage of Beckett-esque absurdism and Shakespearean comic relief in his multi-narrator structure untethered to any sense of shared history, but what might work well in a sparser or shorter format becomes muddled at 300 pages. Pocahontas is a truly fresh creation, a joyous, untutored intellectual through whose eyes the story and its attendant emotions come alive. But the colonists, unrelentingly filthy and mercenary inside and out, make for nihilistic company. In spite of its laudable ambition and sparks of genius, Jamestown, like its namesake settlement, plows bleakly toward disaster.