Although the Peoples Temple tragedy has been mined for novelized subplot fodder at least half a dozen times already — as analyzed here — it was all but inevitable that someone would just spelunk face-first down that rabbit-hole and use the events for the full-fledged focus of a fictionalized façade.
Ryan Roy’s novel Jonestown does just that. It is set in Jonestown during its final months, and the plot follows the trials and tribulations of one man’s attempt to extract his wife and son from the sect’s snatches.
(WARNING: This recap/review includes over-simplified spoilers, but they nevertheless remain spoilers. I also intentionally left out a couple of sub-plot points; if anyone still wishes to read this book, there will still be a couple of “surprises” in store. No need to thank me, I’m a giver.)
In 1971, Neil Clark is a devout member of Peoples Temple. So are his wife Naomi and son David. Neil is on the Temple’s Planning Committee, where his duties seem to be watching the congregation during Jones’ sermons and narcing out who’s not enthusiastic enough. One night, Jones accuses Neil of being a closet homosexual, and offers to rectify this aberration by sodomizing him. Neil refuses as politely as possible, but begins to rethink his station in the sect.
Flash forward to 1978. Neil has left the Temple, but Naomi and David have not only remained loyal, they have left with 1,000 others for the jungles of Guyana. One day Neil comes home and finds an unexpected guest waiting for him: Dylan is a young man who somehow escaped from Jonestown, somehow made it back to America, somehow tracked down Neil’s address, and somehow decided it would be a bright idea to break into his house and wait for him to show up. He chooses to wait in Neil’s bathtub for some reason, but never mind. Maybe that’s just what jet-lagged cultists do to unwind after long trips.
Neil takes Dylan to a meeting of the Concerned Relatives, where Dylan tells everyone about the hardships of day-to-day life at the Guyana commune. This should be enough to convince Neil he has to do something to rescue his family, but he gets sidetracked by a nubile news-hound who happens to be at the meeting and who just happens to have romantic history with Neil. That latter is Lori, now a reporter for a local newspaper, who was once his main squeeze a few years past, before he dumped her and hooked up with Naomi. After the CR meeting, they catch up on old times and end the evening with some hot monkey love. The next morning Neil packs his bags and books a flight to Guyana. (Apparently in 1978 there were daily direct flights between San Francisco and Georgetown, and you didn’t even need your malaria shots before boarding. It was a simpler time.)
To Neil’s credit, he is keenly aware that he has nothing even remotely resembling A PLAN to get Naomi and David out of Jonestown. Through bluff , bluster, and improvisation, though, he manages to finagle a face-to-face with Jim Jones himself. Neil hints that he is a repentant apostate wishing to come back to The Fold. Plus he might have important information about an upcoming congressional visit.
To Jones’ credit, he knows this is enough bullshit to fertilize a football field, and figures it’s all somehow a trap. Luckily for Neil, though, Jones apparently subscribes to the keep your friends close but your enemies closer school of thought, so he allows Neil back into the camp.
Whatever the case, Jones promptly puts Neil on potato detail: 14 hours-a-day rooting around the Town’s vegetable garden.
Sure: it’s grueling, it’s back-breaking, BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! Overseeing this hideousness is the obligatory Cruel Guard™, a young Jonestown devout named Drew. Neil and Drew take instant dislikes to each other, but of course things come to a head a couple days later when Jones calls a town meeting. In front of the whole congregation, Jones pulls up Naomi and accuses her of unauthorized sexual activity. Jones then reasons aloud: if she’s so hot to trot, let’s let everyone else who’s horny come up and take a turn at her. Several residents promptly queue up to do so. When it’s Drew’s turn to drop his pants and have at her, Neil loses it and rushes the stage to beat Drew senseless.
Neil’s punishment for this is to be put into The Box for a few days. Luckily, he’s released when Jones learns of an upcoming inspection by meddlers from the US Embassy, whose list of people they’d like to interview includes Neil’s name (courtesy of a concerned Lori back home). Neil figures the inspection would be the ideal time to get out, so he manages to pull David aside and ask him if he’d like to leave.
Alas, Drew — still bruised and Hell-bent on revenge — catches them in this clandestine meeting in the jungle a few hundred feet away from the perimeter, and a scuffle breaks out. Drew’s gun goes off several times, the last shot inconveniently pointing at its owner. Drew is mortally wounded. Neil grabs the gun, then somehow decides his best course of action is to walk calmly back to join the others and carry on as if all is copacetic.
Despite numerous people having heard the shots, it is three days before anyone finds Drew’s body. Upon discovery, Jones promptly convenes a White Night, where he tells everyone that Drew had commit suicide as an act of revolutionary protest against The Cruel World Forces conspiring against them. Not everyone buys this explanation, though, chief among them being Drew’s father Roger.
Roger correctly suspects that Neil killed his son, and he is outraged that Jones does nothing about it. So of course the father hatches his own elaborate Road-Runner scheme to extract satisfaction. Through a conspiring intermediary, Roger passes a pistol along to Neil, as well as the idea that it is time for a change of leadership around ’Town, and that Neil should be The One to take Jones out. Roger promptly camps out in Jones’ room, hiding in the dark with a shotgun aimed at the door. When that door finally opens, Roger unloads on the silhouetted figure, only to discover that Neil had convinced someone else to show up in his place to do the wet work.
Turns out that Neil was off rescuing David at the time. Roger had actually thought of that possibility happening and had stationed four armed guards around David. Fortunately, Neil is able to channel his inner ninja and somehow overcome them and grab David. Neil’s good luck continues: nobody is concerned by the series of loud shots and dying screams issuing from their dear leader’s house, so the two are able to escape from the settlement and make it to Port Kaituma. With the help of a sympathetic shipsman, they then traverse to Georgetown.
Back at the camp, Jones reaches out to his contacts at the Guyana capital to keep an eye out for Neil. Sure enough, the pair are spotted at a bank where Neil had stashed some cash and back-up passports. The bad guys grab Neil and David, drag them back to Jonestown, and promptly sedate our poor protagonist into submission.
Around this time, though, Congressman Ryan arrives with the Concerned Relatives for their ill-fated visit. Tagging along with the reporters is Lori. From this point on, events play out pretty much historically. Ryan and his entourage gain access to the plantation, and Lori spends her time on the tour of the Town looking around for Neil. She manages to check pretty much every place except the one hut where he’s squirreled away. She heads back to the airstrip with the rest of the delegation, and is wounded when Temple members launch their assault on the congressman.
Meanwhile, back at Jonestown, the namesake’s Reverend orders the final, fatal White Night. When it’s David’s turn to take the drink, he balks, so Jones orders him ushered away to be force-fed in private.
With all the chaos and confusion surrounding the congressman’s visit, Neil’s nurses had slacked on his sedation, so he is able to become lucid enough to free himself from his restraints. He spots David being led off and is again able to channel some more ninja-fu to overcome the guard and save his son. Alas, he’s not in time to save Naomi: he finds her just after she’s gulped the grape ’Aid. In her final moments they reconcile. Neil stays with her an hour after she dies, loudly crying but — can you believe this guy’s luck? — not attracting the attention of the guards who are actively patrolling for just such stragglers. He then grabs a gun and goes out prowling for Jones.
Jones is busy packing suitcases with cash, his intent being to take Ryan’s airplane and fly to Cuba. Neil curtails this concept. They exchange some nasty words, and then Neil shoots Jones dead. He then leads David back to Port Kaituma, where he finds Lori. There is a glorious, tear-filled reunion.
The book has a brief epilogue set several years later, where Neil and Lori are married and he, she, and David are doing their best to get on with their lives.
Ryan Roy acknowledges that he did a bit of research into the subject, including reading Reiterman’s Raven, Layton’s Seductive Poison, and perusing the Alternative Considerations website. I’m willing to bet he also watched the NBC video of Congressman Ryan’s visit: the only parts of the novel that have any actual descriptions of things are those that line up with what’s on the video. Likewise, he almost certainly also listened to the Q042 tape of Jones’ final performance, as parts are transcribed almost verbatim in novelized dialogue.
Obviously, this is a mixture of fact and fancy. Made-up characters like Lori, Dylan, and Roger rub elbows with real people like Bob Brown, Annie Moore, and Michael Prokes. Whether these are accurate portrayals is hard to say, mostly because none of them ever really do anything except lurk in the background or give expository plot-advancing soliloquies. I’ll leave it to someone else to decide if Jim Jones himself is accurately reflected throughout.
The author does get some minor details wrong, but they are nit-picks and forgivable. If one accepts the veracity of Raven — and I acknowledge there are those who do not — Roy’s book struck me as an otherwise fairly accurate representation of Jonestown and the events at its end. That is, of course, assuming you ignore obvious faults and elephants in the room like the apparent ability to go around Jonestown with a gun and drop bodies left, right, and behind without anyone batting an eye or wondering what the blotches of blood on your shirt are from.
MY TWO CENTS
This is not a good novel, and it flunks on a couple of levels. The plot was impoverished, the structure was clunky, and I didn’t care for Roy’s writing style at all. Huge chunks of this tome are awkward expository dialogues that merely spell out the obvious. There are minimal descriptions of things and people — I would be surprised if this book had more than one hundred adjectives in it. Character development is non-existent. Indeed, most of the cast are faceless forms floating from plot point to plot point. They’re not people, they’re functions: the Loyal Lieutenant, the Cruel Guard™, the Disillusioned Follower, etc. These stock parts are repeatedly hammered home with the subtlety of an ice pick to the forehead.
Roy’s inability to flesh out any of the characters is one of the biggest speedbumps in liking this book. This is most glaring with his treatment of the protagonist. Neil is never given any back story, except for a throw-away line that “(he) joined the Temple to make positive changes in (his) life and in the community” [p. 55]. Likewise, his relationships with his wife and son are left unexplored. Neil is obviously willing to risk all for them — well, for David, certainly; Naomi is frequently (and glaringly) omitted — but we readers never get a sense of the bond or motivation other than the obvious “it’s his family.” Apparently Roy feels that the “father attempting to save his son” angle is enough to evoke audience sympathy. Maybe it is for other readers, too, but not me: Ma Barker may have loved her kids, but that’s not enough to make me root for her and her gang during a bank heist.
Ultimately, two words seem to sum up this book: amateurish and unnecessary.
Amateurish: this is Roy’s first novel, and it’s painfully obvious that it is. He makes way too many rookie mistakes in style and structure that a more seasoned author would relegate to the cutting room carpet. This book is also about 100 pages longer than it needs to be. I get it: Drew is a Cruel Guard(nobody move until I find my trademark!) so you can stop after the tenth repetitive example. Plus, he’s obviously trying to give the reader the Jonestown experience, but the lack of descriptive detail never made me care about the characters or even feel like I was there. This is supposed to be the jungles of Guyana, fer Chris’sake! Where’s the sweltering temperature? Where’s the sticky humidity? Where’s the damned bug bite that causes the Invincible Itch which no amount of scratching can solve? Not in these pages.
Unnecessary: most of the nuances of this book are lifted straight out of Raven, so if you’ve read that book, you’ve read this one. Don’t expect to learn anything new from this.
On the bright side, Jonestown is a comparatively quick flip. You can probably read it over a weekend if you don’t have more pressing matters like sorting socks, alphabetizing CDs, and hey: that Candy isn’t going to Crush itself! You do need to turn off your brain for this one, and fortunately the plot and writing style does numb one down like a bucket of Novocain. Plus: you can tell that, in his own way, Roy’s trying.
For what it’s worth, Jonestown has surprisingly high reviews on Amazon: of the 21 reviews (at the time of this writing) 15 are 5-star. So: maybe my standards are too high. Or maybe he has 15 friends who owe him a favor. In any event, I’d give it 2 and a half.
Jonestown is not the worst novel I’ve ever read… far from it. Then again, it is bad, but unfortunately it’s not bad enough to swing it into the “so bad it’s good” category that makes movies like “Plan 9 from Outer Space” or books like My Immortal fun, guilty pleasures. Me, I think you can skip this one and sleep soundly knowing you haven’t missed much.
(Matthew Thomas Farrell is a regular contributor to this website. His other article in this edition of the jonestown report is Morbidabilia. His earlier writings for this site are collected here. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)