Warning: This review contains spoilers.
Jim Jones Is Alive is a recent self-published novel by Eugene Mendonsa, who holds a doctorate in anthropology from Cambridge University. His website describes him as an ethnographic specialist in African culture. (Note: I am not providing a link to his website here because my computer reported malware from his site, making me reluctant to direct others there.) The back cover of the book states: “Dr. Mendonsa is the author of several works of fiction and many academic books and articles.”
Given Mendonsa’s background, I had expectations for this book that were not even close to being met. The book is poorly written with a preposterous plot full of clichés, one-dimensional characters, and awkward, corny dialogue. The work is also greatly in need of a copy editor. I sincerely wish that the author had released this as a Kindle edition because the book is double-spaced with wide margins, wasting two or three times as much paper than seems justified. A constant source of annoyance is the complete absence of page numbers. Not only does it make it hard for the reader to gauge how much they have left until the end, it makes it impossible for a reviewer to appropriately cite quotations from this book. It’s surprising that an academic would publish in this manner.
There’s nothing metaphorical about the title—it accurately portrays the premise of the novel. In fact, there’s nothing metaphorical in the entire book, so don’t look for any symbolism or depth here! The main character of the story, Dr. Avery Daniels (an anthropology professor at Cambridge University) receives anonymous letters informing him that his real mother died in Jonestown. Avery, who was raised in San Francisco, confronts his mother about these letters when he returns to the States for a visit. His mother confesses that he was adopted and that his biological mother drank the poison at Jonestown and died with him in her arms. This propels Avery into a search for information about his birth mother (Choral Aria Smith) as well as the truth about his birth father, who may have been none other than Jim Jones himself. Avery hires a private investigator named Sally to help him find the truth and ultimately Jim Jones. From the first mention of Sally, it is clear she will become Avery’s lover. Their relationship is responsible for much of the inane dialogue in the book. I am deeply grateful that Mendonsa stopped at flirtatious wordplay and did not include sex scenes: that’s the one thing that could have made the book worse than it already is. There are moments where the dialogue is so dreadful that readers might actually start rooting for fictional Jim Jones, even if they wouldn’t have rooted for real-life Jim Jones.
I won’t spend a lot of time delving into the book’s plot because I don’t think it warrants the effort. Suffice it to say that eventually several people besides Avery and Sally are tracking the surviving Jim Jones (alias Jon Jeremy, alias Jerald Jenks, hereinafter simply “JJ”). Ultimately, JJ is defeated in the kind of supernatural ending that one might have expected in a Stephen King novel; it involves a Native American tracker and a spirit bear. (No, I am not kidding.) Perhaps the biggest plot surprise was that not only did Jones survive Jonestown, but so did Choral. Apart from Avery and Sally, most of the other characters seem to fill the critical role of murder victims to illustrate that many years after Jonestown, JJ is still paranoid, ruthless, and dangerous.
Holes in The Premise and Unanswered Questions
The reader is given little explanation as to how JJ and Choral managed to escape Jonestown, although apparently the Russians were involved in flying them out of Guyana after the couple made their way through the jungle. At the start of Avery’s investigation, JJ and Choral live a clandestine existence at a horse ranch (the Lazy JJ) near Redding, California, and probably would have lived out their golden years there riding horses and snorting cocaine (provided by JJ’s Mexican handyman), if it weren’t for Avery’s decision to hire Sally. (The handyman, Manuel, is worth mentioning because he appears to be a none-too-bright illegal immigrant but is actually a cunning leader of Mexican drug cartel who works for JJ in order to hide from law enforcement. No, I am not kidding.)
Early in the novel, after reading that the face of the (presumed) corpse of JJ was unrecognizable when it was discovered, Avery jumps on the notion that JJ might have survived. It is never explained whose body was passed off as JJ’s in this alternate version of Jonestown or how JJ managed to pull off this fake-out. It is also not explained how Avery managed to be saved from the arms of a woman who died by poisoning—a woman presumed to be Choral Aria Smith. Or perhaps he wasn’t: maybe JJ and Choral carried Avery out of Jonestown and brought him back to the U.S.? The writer provides no clue as to how Avery himself survived.
Nevertheless, Avery somehow ends up in the custody of Choral’s mother, who gave him up for adoption. At one point in the novel, Avery questions whether Choral was really even his birth mother, although this is either a red herring or a plot point that was never expanded upon by the author. Eventually, Avery finds Choral (who is murdered by JJ), but he seems completely unaffected by her death and makes no effort to find out anything more about her. Perhaps Avery is simply too focused on catching the evil JJ.
Long-time students of Jonestown may find the premise of this book to be just as absurd as I do. The Jim Jones audible on FBI Tape Q042 was too drugged and mentally unstable to effect an escape from Jonestown after the mass deaths. Mendonsa’s novel has JJ leaving with a single mistress. Neither is there a mention of an inner circle of aides. Rather, JJ is depicted as a criminal mastermind who had foreseen (way back in the early 1970s) the need to have a horse ranch hideaway near Redding and managed to retain sole control of all of the millions he had stashed away over the years. Apparently, he was happy to retire from preaching to settle down and become a one-woman man with a seemingly endless supply of cocaine. He had so much foresight that he even bought a backup hideaway! (No, I am not kidding.)
There are numerous other plot holes that I won’t bother exploring here.
The Fatal Flaw of the Book
There are few clues as to what the current year is supposed to be in the book. The earliest hint is found in Chapter 10, when Avery and Sally have their first in-person meeting over dinner and a bottle of “2010 Chateau Montelana Cabernet Sauvignon”. Okay, so the story must be taking place sometime after that, like 2011 or later, right? That would make JJ 80 years old! Later clues to the timeline come when the Russian Head of State is named as President Ivan Utkin, successor to Putin. The reader then concludes that this book is happening in the future, making JJ definitely in his 80s, if not his 90s. It is not until Chapter 29 when it is revealed that this story is occurring is 1995, making JJ a mere 64 years old. This fictional JJ is lithe—unlike real-life JJ in 1978—and able to outwit adversaries, engage in deadly gun battles, and even pilot his personal helicopter when he needs to flee to safety. He’s Super JJ!
And that is where the entire book implodes. Much of the research that character Avery Daniels does involves the internet. He loves Google searches, but Google wasn’t launched until 1998 (at least, according to the Google search that I did). Avery (and likely Mendonsa himself) uses Wikipedia as a source for his Jim Jones and Jonestown research; Wiki didn’t exist until 2001. While out on the hunt for JJ, Avery uses his iPhone to search information, but iPhones didn’t hit the market until 2007. Not only is the 2010 bottle of wine out-of-time, the entire story is one giant anachronism! If I had not committed to writing this review, I would have stopped reading at the point the year 1995 was revealed because a gaffe of that magnitude is a deal-breaker.
Potential to Annoy or Offend the Reader
I probably shouldn’t be surprised that a fictional book about Jonestown contains misinformation, however I feel I would be remiss if I did not comment on Mendonsa’s treatment of the history of Jim Jones, Peoples Temple, and Jonestown. Besides the fact that Mendonsa uses “People’s Temple” instead of “Peoples Temple” – a common and forgivable error – there are a few things that are misleading about the relevant history. Avery derives his knowledge about Jonestown from Wikipedia and Charles A. Krause’s book, and I am inclined to think that Mendonsa derived most of his knowledge from these same sources. Mendonsa depicts Jones as “a regular user of stimulants and LSD” (Chapter 4), which seems to be a misstatement, given Jones’ use of stimulants and sedatives (barbiturates). The book also has JJ’s (presumed) corpse found in Jones’ cabin at Jonestown, not in the pavilion.
The book also mentions over a hundred people from the Temple surviving (which is true), but it implies that they did so by running into the jungle. The number of people who walked/ran away from Jonestown on the day of the deaths was much smaller. The author makes a point of not identifying any actual Temple members by name, which made me feel like more than 900 lives are reduced to a nameless, faceless body count. It’s possible that Mendonsa wanted to avoid offending or upsetting family members or survivors, thereby omitting names. But even then, the basic history of the event should still be portrayed accurately. I could pick other nits here, but I won’t.
There’s also a problem with the way that two Jonestown survivors are portrayed in the novel. These men—both ex-law enforcement in the story—hear that JJ is alive and want to hunt him down to seek revenge. They manage to follow Manuel, the hired hand, back to JJ’s hideaway. What’s surprising (and offensive) is not the implication that ex-Temple members might be in law enforcement—since at least two ex-members in real life pursued such professions—but rather that these characters refer to Manuel as a “beaner.” I find it distasteful to depict these characters as individuals who would use racial epithets, given the Temple’s acceptance of people of all colors. Perhaps their attitudes toward Mexicans changed after Jonestown? Did their work in law enforcement encourage use of racial epithets? That, too, seems like an offensive suggestion.
Take Home Message
The tragedy of this book—and my subsequent reading of it—could have been avoided if only Dr. Mendonsa had researched Jim Jones’ autopsy report and discovered that his body was identified through fingerprint and dental records. (In fact, it’s not even clear to me that Jim Jones’ face was destroyed beyond recognition by the gunshot wound to his temple, although it’s quite likely that decomposition made visual identification impossible). My point: the premise of the book is so flawed that this reader could not suspend disbelief. Add to that plot holes, anachronisms, lame dialogue, and one-dimensional characters, and we are left with a pointless, ludicrous story. The crazy ending takes the story to new heights (or is it depths?) in bad fiction.
This book reminds me of the efforts of an undergraduate in a creative writing class pulling an all-nighter to get an end-of-semester project submitted by deadline. I feel embarrassed for Dr. Mendonsa that he has written this book. I trust that his academic writing is superior to this example of fiction, and I hope he continues writing within his area of expertise.
(Katherine Hill is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver and is a regular contributor to this website. Her views in this article are her own and do not reflect those of MSU-Denver. Her other article in this edition of the jonestown report is Jim Jones and Donald Trump: Same Kool-Aid, Different Vat. Her complete collection of articles is here. She may be reached at email@example.com.)