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For Nothing At All

  • For Nothing At All
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Excerpt

I walked slowly down the hill. The gunman behind me was not the boy who was my friend or a man I could ever know. But in a strange way it was as if I was retracing my life for a final time. The half of a moon had slipped way over Kingston. Off to my left and up the hill was White Marl School where Mrs Campbell would stand like a sentinel, and the white unpaved road of marl stretched up to it like a silver path up to the sky. And the dust that stung my legs was the same dust in which I played chevy chase and marbles with my friends. And the corner I passed was the same place I dusted Red Head in Mr Allen’s yard that day when we all sculled school together.

But the place I walked was a strange land, for the walls and the fences that once gleamed with paint and whitewash were now covered with slogans and the faces of politicians made blurry by the shifting light of the moon. And the words on the walls meant nothing to me. And the trees and the poles we had used as bases when we played chevy chase, and where we would sit to tell stories in the light that shone from the bulbs on them, these poles were now covered with paintings and tags and threats of a new and ugly time.

And my eyes were moist, and the images were strange around me and the memories flooded on and they did not match. Those memories of those times of made-up stories and mischief; of wandering the bushes in search of cows, days of chevy chase, hopscotch and marbles, did not match the place where we now were, nor the feelings that assailed me. For this was another time. Life had changed to war and friends had grown to men.

And I did not know how things could have changed so quickly or what could have remade us in such a short time ... nor why and how it could have been so easy for them to kill me ... how it could have been so easy to die, for nothing ... for nothing at all.

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Product Description

October 17, 2005 Macmillan Caribbean Writers S.
Wesley was the bright one, the one out of all of his friends who was going to do well. But as the years passed the friends grew apart, forced by circumstances along dark paths of corruption and death, devotion or madness, leaving their dreams in tatters. When Wes graduated with the best results the school had ever seen, he couldn't get a job. It was the boys who left school before him that seemed to do well with their weed, flashy clothes, guns and new cars. Even so, he seemed like the only one with a chance, not trapped by the system. Until Danny Bruck moved in on him.

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Product Reviews

  1. Afield of death

    Posted by IAN THOMSON, The Times Literary Suppliment on 28th Feb 2012

    Garfield Ellis, who was born in Jamaica in 1960, is one of Jamaica’s most promising writers. In his third novel, For Nothing At All, he looks at the violent gun culture in the West Indian island during the1970s.
    Then, as now, Jamaica was awash with weapons smuggled in from the United States
    and Latin America in exchange for drugs; the guns were cheap, and to the new breed of
    Jamaican criminals who used them, so was life.

    Telling the story of a group of school friends whose lives are torn apart by one of those guns, Ellis provides a bleak but fascinating sociological portrait of Jamaica in the years
    following Independence in 1962, a time when urban turf wars erupted in the name of divisive ideologies and politically sponsored greed. The prose is taut and pacey, full of words and phrases in the island patois.

    The novel unfolds in Central Village, a sprawling, impoverished suburb, midway between the Jamaican capital of Kingston and Spanish Town. The boundary between the two political parties passes through a housing estate; those who cross the line are believed to be either informers or police. According to Ellis, there has never been a safe middle ground in Jamaican politics: either you are JLP (Labour) or you are PNP (Socialist). Young Wesley, the narrator of For Nothing At All, is a bright boy determined to succeed at school. A decent education, he thinks, will protect him from the local drug barons and power-brokers, who manipulate the unlettered. Wesley’s friends – Stevie, Spragga, Patrick, Andrew and Colin – look on enviously as he outstrips them in class and prepares to better himself. His dream of self-improvement dissolves
    when Skin shows him a gun he has picked up. Wesley is horrified, but Skin is excitted by the weapon: now he can act out long-nurtured fantasies of cowboy-style vengeance. (Spaghetti Westerns were all the rage in 1970s Jamaica, particularly those with Clint Eastwood.) A local thug named Danny Bruck Foot intercepts the gun.
    Overnight, Central Village moves from a “playground to a field of death” as Wesley and his friends become prey to Danny and his homicidal brethren. Ellis intercuts his urban tale with scenes from Wesley’s childhood, a time of rural innocence and joyous bouts of truancy (or “sculling”) from school. These passages, heavy with nostalgia for “better days”, serve as a counterpoint to the chapters set in the 1970s, when public life in
    Jamaica soured under the influence of a murderous tribal politics. The author’s exasperated disenchantment with his native country is keenly felt but never loudly expressed. In the end, having been corrupted by politicians, Wesley kills two men, and is jailed. His friends are either dead or in prison like him. For Nothing At All, has been rapturously received in Jamaica; this poignant, unsettling book, should be read by anyone who wishes to understand this beautiful, bedevilled island.


  2. A Must Read

    Posted by Nadia I. Johnson – Anthurium Caribbean Studies Journal on 28th Feb 2012

    In his riveting second novel, For Nothing At All, Garfield Ellis returns to the turbulent period of 1970’s Jamaica to explore the senseless political violence that not only marred the hopes and aspirations of a newly independent nation, but also informs the present day violence that keeps the beautiful island under siege. By contrasting narrative and landscape, Ellis illustrates the manner in which Jamaica was transformed, seemingly overnight, to a place and space where boundaries are drawn, best friends become bitter enemies, and young boys are abruptly thrust into manhood in a most pernicious way. For Nothing At All emphasizes the lack of opportunities that are available to young men coming of age amidst political violence, but even more significant, it demonstrates the improbability of remaining neutral in a culture that insists upon the choosing of sides. At the fundamental core of the novel, Ellis examines the devastating repercussions that arise when politicians pit “uphill” against “down the lane” dissolving the very fiber that binds communities together.


    The novel chronicles the coming of age of Wesley and his friends: Colin, Stevie, and Skin, who enter into manhood amidst the political turmoil that threatens to engulf them. They begin their teenage years mesmerized by the stylistic performance of the gunmen that bring war to Central Village. They are fascinated with the cowboy-inspired shootout that takes place between former friends Spragga and Patrick in the middle of a busy thoroughfare, a scene written for the big screen. And it is their desire to mimic this stylized display of masculinity that makes them more than eager to volunteer for the neighborhood watch. Armed with cutlasses, they patrol the perimeters of their housing scheme that lies directly between the two warring political factions. Buoyed by their perceived masculinity, they revel in seizing those who innocently violate curfew. However, they are ill prepared for the harsh realities of war, as Stevie’s metaphoric death is indeed the death of the innocence that will change their lives forever.


    The novel is organized in alternating chapters that present contrasting narratives of idyllic childhood and a turbulent entrance into manhood to emphasize the dramatic changes that take place in Jamaica as a result of political warfare. Roman numerals and a larger font are used to denote the chapters detailing the childhood of the protagonist Wesley and his friends while those depicting their traumatic teenage years are marked by ominous titles such as “The night Stevie died.” A smaller font is used for these denser chapters.


    Landscape also plays a vital role in contrasting the two narratives. Wesley’s recounting of their days of “sculling” school and playing “chevy chase” are filled with images of endless sugar cane fields, inviting rivers, enticing swimming holes, and expansive cow bush—seemingly a borderless region with limitless possibilities. However, the chronicling of their teenage years is replete with images of perimeters that must be guarded, gullies and highways that cannot be crossed, and a separation of “up the hill” and “down the lane,”—a newly reconfigured space of borders and limitations

    As the protagonist Wesley and his friends become painfully aware of the encroaching threat of political violence, they arm themselves with “weapons” that they feel will protect them from having to choose sides. Wesley relies on his education and Colin hopes that learning auto-mechanics as a trade will keep him out of the war but it is their fierce loyalty to friendship that inevitably ropes them in, for it is Skin’s fascination with guns that brings the war to their front door. In a desperate attempt to save his friend’s life, Wesley crosses the boundary that he once guarded, and it is at this pivotal moment, when his life lies in the hands of a former friend, classmate, and the local village fisherman that he is able to articulate the senseless nature of the war that is threatening to rip Central Village apart: “But politics had come. The highway had become the dividing line. And my friends on one side were killing my friends on the other” (58).


    Despite his effort to stay out of the war, circumstances force Wesley closer and closer to the battle line. After passing seven subjects, Wesley leaves high school and is unable to find work. Although he is frustrated, Wesley is unwilling to seek the favor of a politician, because he knows that the latter will one day expect something in return. Wesley is keenly aware of the politicians who slink in and out of the villages at night only to be followed by the explosion of guns and funeral processions. But at the urging of his mother, he finds himself in the very place that he has tried to avoid—in the middle of the war.
    As timekeeper at a new construction site, Wesley has hopes of unifying the JLP (Jamaica Labour Party) and PNP (People’s National Party) supporters who line up on opposite sides day after day. However, he quickly discovers how far reaching the hands of the politically aligned gunmen really are. Reminiscent of his youthful days, Wesley must rely on his chevy chase skills to save his life and ultimately must choose a side. He chooses the self-preservation.


    At the end of the novel, Wesley is in jail and not yet willing to confront the world outside that threatens to snatch away not only his life but also his humanity. Instead he chooses to remain in jail, to the bewilderment of many, to reflect on his childhood and try to make sense of why and how the days of sculling school and afternoons at the river came abruptly to an end only to be replaced with guns and death, and “for nothing … for nothing at all” (172).


    Ellis’s use of language is flawless, as he moves between a seamless blend of Jamaican Creole for the dialogue of his characters and Standard English to reveal the most inner thoughts of his protagonist Wesley. His use of Creole will undoubtedly be appreciated by a Jamaican readership, but it is also readily accessible to a non-Jamaican readership. His characters are so convincingly drawn that they pull the reader into the existence of their troubled sad world.


    Ellis’s poetic prose takes his reader back to a painful period in Jamaica’s history and brings to the forefront the difficulties faced by former colonies in forging independent nations. Its tale of political warfare and corruption has universal resonance and yet he brilliantly preserves its Jamaican specificity. His second novel and fourth book, For Nothing At All, undoubtedly solidifies his position as a frontrunner in a growing field of Jamaican authors who seek to narrate their world in their own language and style. Yet this is a timeless novel that will appeal


  3. Coming of age in Central Village

    Posted by Mary Hanna on 28th Feb 2012

    Hard-hitting and eloquent, this coming-of-age novel follows in the tradition of Michael Anthony's Green Days by the River to tell the story of Wesley and his friends from the age of nine to 19. Wesley's narrative is in the first person and follows two movements: the first, a joyful recounting of a sunny day of sculling school and all the adventures that open up to the gang of friends as they go fishing, stealing sugar cane, fleeing a cane fire, being shot at by a ranger and losing their clothes.

    The second movement is dark and realistic as the friends grow apart, forced along paths of corruption and death, becoming enemies and gun-toting advocates of one political group or another as they seek work in the Jamaica of the 1970s.

    "What happened to us, Wesley?" Colin once asked. "What happened to us? You know is me one leave? You know out of all o' we is me one leave? Everybody either dead or gone to jail. Is just me one leave."
    fitting end
    Colin's cry to his friend Wesley, in jail for the murder of old school friends on a corrupt construction site, is a fitting end to this tale of poverty and blight in a crime-ridden nation.
    Ellis' two-theme construction is intriguing. He tells part of the sunny schooldays' story and interleaves the narrative of mature angst and woe. The first person narrative is never whining or overbearing, but reports in a forthright and gentle manner the tale of failure to fit in after a brilliant school career.
    Wesley is forced to seek help from the political boss of his district, knowing full well that it is the first step to corruption. He has little choice. There is no work to be had, even for a boy who got seven O' Levels and achieved the highest marks ever in the exams. He is pushed by his mother to become an earning adult, and, caught by circumstances in a whirlwind of nightmare doings on the construction site, he is pitted against old friends who have long become enemies and has no choice but to play the game. Two ends against the middle, as hetries to keep uninvolved in politics and do his work fairly.

    But Wesley is no goody-goody schoolboy. He and his friends have long prepared for a maturity that revolves around guns and weed. As boys, Wesley's friend Stevie goes mad with angst for the accidental murder of Mr. Hozzy ('The Night Stevie Died'), and his best friend, Skin, is shot to death by former friends Patrick and Andrew, now on the other side of the gang wars in Central Village ('How Skin Got His Stripes').
    escapes to christianity
    In 'Colin's Time', we are shown how Wesley's friend Colin escapes the rule of the gun by accidentally adopting the Christian life. Colin is saved when his girlfriend, Fay, becomes pregnant and he is forced to attend church, where he experiences the gift of tongues and is adopted by the church community. Of all the boys, only Colin survives to a manhood that is without death or prison.

    In 'How I Became a Wanted Man', we are shown in convincing detail how corruption swallows everything in its path, and Wesley ends up in jail for murder. The coda ('The Why of It') is a paean to the loss of innocence and the wasted years of gangsterism for this group of friends. It concludes that it was "for nothing … for nothing at all".


    The structure of the book with its interleaving of short stories in two different time frames is very effective, as is the language. Creole conversation is interleaved with direct and clean prose, powerful in its own right:


    "I know that one day I will have to give in to my parents, the lawyer and my friends and leave this place to face my innocence. And I wonder about them, those adults, those people who love me, who gave us life, who brought us up, whether their dreams are anything like mine. And if they understand or can imagine the secrets that children live with in their heads."
    So muses Wesley from jail in the closing section of his narrative. The book is an eye-opener for those who are not cognisant of the life of the children of Jamaica's poor villages and ghettos. Their lives are determined by the gun and the adults who watch them, like fisherman Johnson, with a view to recruiting them in ghetto wars. Ellis writes with great compassion of these moments of choice. He speaks through Wesley to bring awareness of childhood suffering to the reader.


    locked to cultural keynotes


    Ellis' fast-paced narrative is locked to cultural keynotes in the wider society. When describing the Don's appearance, Wesley says:
    "He seemed so silly to me, sitting there on the stone wearing a sweat suit as if it was a three-piece suit from Spencers', with his gold chain hanging down on to his undershirt like a badman out of the movie The Harder They Come, reciting words bigger than himself; the whole thing seemed comical to me."
    The village community and the family fill a place in the boys' lives that is not finally as effective as the group's activities. The boys are on their own, for the most part, only fearing parental wrath for sculling school. Wesley and his friends have access to guns and weed. They are in danger of exactly the life trajectory that transpires. Ellis weaves his narrative with great skill to show the inevitability of the boys' falling in with criminal elements and being bought off with guns, fine clothes and cars. Wesley struggles with these temptations, but in the end he is overwhelmed by the nature of the adult world. He fears for his life, and shoots his former friends Patrick and Andrew, who have already shown that they have no mercy for boyhood friends.


    Garfield Ellis was born in 1960, the eldest of nine children in Central Village, Jamaica.Flaming Hearts, his first collection of short stories, and a later unpublished novel, both won the Una Marson Award. He also won the Canute A. Brodhurst prize for fiction and the 1990 Heineman/Lifestyle short story competition. For Nothing At Allis his second novel for the Macmillan Caribbean Writers series. His first novel isSuch as I Have (2003).


  4. An excellent story, beautifully written

    Posted by Barbara Nelson on 27th Feb 2012

    I HAD recently read an excerpt of For Nothing At All, Garfield Ellis' second novel for Macmillan Caribbean Writers, in the Jamaica Journal Vol. 29 Nos. 1-2 June to October 2005. I thought it was brilliant!
    Having now read the whole novel I agree with the publishers that Ellis is indeed a gifted writer. His first novel for MCW is Such as I have (2003).
    The Macmillan Caribbean Writers Series (MCW) is an exciting new collection of fine writing which treats the broad range of the Caribbean experience. The series offers a varied selection of novels and short stories, and also embraces works of non-fiction, poetry anthologies and collections of plays particularly suitable for arts and drama festivals.
    Ellis, in telling this deeply moving, tragic story presents two themes. One theme is light, happy, nostalgic and amusing while the other is dark, frightening and terrible. The story deals with young, carefree schoolboys from White Marl All-Age School who grow up from the innocence of childhood to become young men whose lives are cruelly shaped and terribly manipulated by poverty, crime and political violence.
    Ellis takes us from Chapter 1 when Wesley, the narrator of the tale becomes the only boy at the school to ever "dust" big, fast Red Head. Wesley was the bright one in the group of Stevie, Spragga, Patrick, Andrew, Colin and himself.
    On the day he "dusted" Red Head Wesley and the other boys "sculled" school and spent a day of fun and excitement eating sugar cane, fishing, escaping a cane fire and losing their clothes to Breezy, the ranger.
    STRIPES
    This carefree, sunlit day forms the backdrop to the Chapters: The night Stevie died; How Skin got his stripes; Colin's time; How I became a wanted man; The Why of it. In those five chapters the author describes how the friends grew apart, each person becoming a victim of circumstances that lead in most cases to corruption, death and madness.
    Ellis is a master of word pictures and brings a deep emotional understanding to his work. At the funeral of one of their friends a conversation between Wesley and Colin goes like this: ÒPeople like we don't turn nothing. People like we just dead so."
    SAD
    Wesley continues to explain that at the funeral: "We weren't crying or anything. We were just sad. There were tears, but not long ones that ran down your face in streams to your chest. Just short stumpy ones that rolled out and dripped down to your chin from time to time."
    Ellis describes a scene where Colin got in the spirit and began to dance at a Pentecostal meeting. He writes: "He pivoted and stepped with feet as light as those kids in the dance class at school. He pivoted, stepped high, dipped and twisted his way back and forth down the aisle. He shouted and praised the Lord in a high plaintive voice."
    Wesley the narrator describes the effect that the charismatic Michael Manley had on him and his adolescent friends. He remembers Òhow he (Manley) stood and spoke. And how every word was like pure, beautiful, soft milk." Wesley believed that "Manley had come to save me, though I was not sure what he was saving me from. But if he had asked us then, any of us, to leave school and follow him to hell we would have done it."
    But the innocence of youth was quickly eroded and awful experiences in the neighbouring communities began to shape the character of the young men in the area. One of these was Danny Bruk Foot. Wesley noted with dread: "The dead flat of his eyes and the coldness in them was something that only the experience of having power over life and death could produce. In his eyes you could see that he had killed before and that he believed he had the power to do it at his will."
    HELPLESS
    In another disturbing experience Wesley was forced to watch a group of young men steal sand at Elshire. He recalled that he "could almost hear the pristine surface (of the beach) sigh as the large bucket sank into it." He watched the large caterpillar scoop up the sand and he "stood helplessly as the large tractor ravaged the beach, plunging its bucket again and again into the sand."
    Wesley honestly believed that if he stayed out of trouble, one day he would make it out of the confines of White Marl. With this thought in mind he studied diligently and made many sacrifices. But after he left school he saw the boys who had turned to criminality become rich and powerful while his own life languished. His anger builds up.
    The ending is poignant and gut-wrenching. Wesley realises that only Colin has found "something" to hope for, hold on to and steady himself in his god.
    In his pain, anguish and dismay he can only ask why? Why although the game has not been finished Òwe have been wasted, vanquished and spent for nothing at all."
    An excellent story, beautifully written.



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