Cover image for Pictures of a dying man
Pictures of a dying man
Kamau, Kwadwo Agymah, 1948-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Minneapolis, MN : Coffee House Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
227 pages ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



When Gladstone Belle is found hanging from a beam in his own house, everyone in the village tries to understand who he really was, and why he killed himself. In this Caribbean Citizen Kane , the voices of Gladstone's past accumulate, complementing and contradicting each other, to arrive at an understanding of Gladstone's true identity and the circumstances that complicated his life. And his death.
Is a human life merely the sum of other people's perceptions of it, a compilation of rumors and hearsay? What happens if those views are erroneous? Continuing in the vein of his critically acclaimed novel, Flickering Shadows , Agymah Kamau weaves a colorful story, full of deception, love, and loss, around a community's remembrances of a Gladstone Belle. We discover the intricacies of living in a small Caribbean community by seeing things through the eyes of an array of vivid characters, including Isamina, his wife; Esther and Sonny-Boy, his mother and father; Carl, the suspicious husband of his former lover; PeeWee, the village gangster; Theophilus Bascombe, a disgruntled coworker; and Marie Antoinette LaSalle,the histrionic clairvoyant.
In a diverse community and political world riddled with rumors of murder and disappearance, Gladstone's humble beginnings and honest manner win the community's trust. He quickly moves up the political ladder. But his life is cut short when he decides that he can no longer look the other way. He realizes that everything around him has suffered from this corruption: his marriage, his friendships, and his dignity. The narrative of Gladstone Belle's life and death illumines the complexity of class distinctions within a postcolonial community.

"Gladstone Belle, a man with a high position in island politics, is found hanging from the rafters of his home, which triggers gossip about his lief and tragic end. Did he kill himself in remorse for the wrongs, civil and social, he had committed or out of realization that his wife wa unfaithful? Or was he killed? A local schoolteacher, and the widow's lover, is the primary narrator of the life and times of this complicated man. From diaries reluctantly accepted from Gladstone's father, the narrator learns the deceased man's priv

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Gladstone Belle, a man with a high position in island politics, is found hanging from the rafters of his home, which triggers gossip about his life and tragic end. Did he kill himself in remorse for the wrongs--civil and social--he had committed or out of realization that his wife was unfaithful? Or was he killed? A local schoolteacher, and the widow's lover, is the primary narrator of the life and times of this complicated man. From diaries reluctantly accepted from Gladstone's father, the narrator learns the deceased man's private thoughts and confirmation of a rumored nervous breakdown in the U.S. before he returned home to marry well and achieve stature. Gladstone's mother, his widow, a former lover, and people he had befriended and offended, all lend their voices to a tale showing that one's identity comprises other people's perceptions--"quilted fragments of rumor, gossip and opinions that could very well be erroneous." Kamau, originally from Barbados, conveys lyrically and simply the lifestyle of an unnamed Caribbean village and the complexity of a single human life. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

Employing a richly varied chorus of voices and excerpts from diaries and journals, Barbados native Kamau explores the enigmatic character of Gladstone Belle, former minister of tourism and culture of a small Caribbean country, in this followup to Flickering Shadows, Kamau's acclaimed debut. After Belle's body is discovered hanging in his bedroom, friends, relatives and acquaintances recount their interactions with the fallen bureaucrat, and a nuanced picture gradually emerges of a man who was at once a flamboyant, charismatic politician and a retiring private figure. As in his first novel, Kamau has assembled an impressive supporting cast: Isamina, Belle's unfaithful wife; Sonny-Boy and Esther, his colorful parents; Pee Wee, a heartless thug; and Carl, the clueless husband of Debra, one of Belle's former lovers. Each one presents a different and conflicting vision of Belle. Meanwhile, Sonny-Boy, Belle's wise, insightful and incorruptible father, is shown to be a character nearly as complex as his son. Feeling like an outsider in his native land, Sonny-Boy left for America, where he lives in Florida and works as a janitor, returning to bury the son he never knew, and participating in a communal grieving process that brings every rumor and deceit into the open. While Isamina recalls her husband's excessive brooding and drinking in the weeks before his death, she wonders whether the cause for his fall was political, romantic or spiritual. Did he really have a man killed to cover up an act of agency fraud? Did he know about her affair? As the evidence piles up, Kamau imparts wisdom on issues of race, class, political corruption and reform, and moral decay in this multilayered puzzler about a man whom nobody really knew. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Kamau's intriguing second novel (after Flickering Shadows) gives new meaning to the notion that seeing is not always believing. At the opening of the book, former Deputy Prime Minister Gladstone Belle hangs, dead, from a ceiling joist in his house. Almost immediately, his parents, Miss Esther and Sonny-Boy; his widow, Isamina; and assorted others begin to suspect foul play. Set on a small island in the Caribbean, the book moves from voice to voice as Gladstone's childhood friends, neighbors, ex-girlfriends, widow, daughter, and co-workers all ruminate upon the mark he left on their lives. Gladstone himself narrates bits of the novel, via journal excerpts and poems in which he writes eloquently about his failures as a husband and his disillusionment with government corruption. In the end, one character notes, "Trying to discover who a person is is like trodding down all kinds of dead ends in a maze." Kamau writes in a lilting, unaffected style with real compassion for his characters. This is a haunting, powerful, beautiful story; highly recommended for public and academic libraries.ÄLisa S. Nussbaum, Euclid P.L., OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Opinions are like genitals--everyone has them. So, though no one knew why Gladstone Augustus Belle slung a rope around a ceiling joist in his bedroom and hanged himself, everyone had an opinion on the matter.     No one knows the reasons or the circumstances, but there is one point on which everyone agrees: it was a beautiful day, certainly not a day one would ordinarily choose for death.     Midmorning. School childrens' singsong voices drifting through the windows of the schoolhouse on cool breezes that rustled the tree leaves, caressed women's thighs, rippled their frocks and brought sighs to everyone's lips--everyone except Gladstone Augustus Belle. Midmorning, when Isamina Belle, wearing a thin-strapped, black-and-white polka-dot dress and high-heel shoes, left home, headed toward the main road where the hawkers had already set up their trays along the roadside ever since disembarking from the country lorries at sunup; Isamina on her way to purchase provisions to prepare her last meal for her and her husband, she said later.     Yes, it was midmorning with the fragrant steam of hot cocoa bathing my face as I sipped from my enamel cup as through my front window I enjoyed the rhythm of Isamina Belle's buttocks undulating as she passed by.     Midmorning when after returning from a short stroll taken to inhale the freshness of the air I noticed my mother standing still and holding her dust rag motionless on the back of the mahogany rocking chair listening to some distant sound audible only to her ears and instantly I knew that as sure as steam rises from a hot, tar road after a sudden tropical shower I was about to hear one of her dramatic, prescient pronouncements: somebody sick, somebody dead, an accident just happened or is about to occur, a tragedy has struck, a cataclysm about to erupt. A regular psychic, my mother is.     And no sooner do these thoughts enter my head than, "Gladstone just dead," she says, all the while fixing me with one of her accusing stares.     Inwardly I'm saying, Oh Lord, but aloud my only response is, "Yeah?"     Because how else can one respond to a woman standing in the middle of her house staring into space then announcing that somebody somewhere else just died?     I'm a schoolteacher, perhaps not the best educated of persons. But one thing education has given me is a fair dose of skepticism. Which often tends to put me at odds with friends, neighbors, and of course Mumah who is giving me this look as though I've just bashed in the head of a crippled infant--because of the skepticism she has read in my face, I surmise.     But surmising can lead you down the wrong track sometimes, because instead of commenting on my disbelief she's asking me, "What that boy ever do you, eh? What Gladstone ever do you?"     I'm puzzled.     And she continues, "why you so bad-minded?" A rhetorical question, I assume; because she's going on about how grudgeful-minded I am. "Since you was small," she's saying, talking about how she carried me nine months inside her belly but she got to say it: "You hate to see people do better than you." (which, I must tell you, isn't true.) And she's pausing and then asking as if it's one of the great puzzles in the universe, "why you so, eh? Why you like that?" and shaking her head in deep befuddlement. "You en get it from me," she's saying. "And your father, God rest him in his grave, wasn't like that. Here it is I tell you a man dead and all you can say is `yeah'?"     Gradually I'm beginning to get my bearings. Mumah--always able to find something good to say about even the most evil of persons, her motto being, "If you can't say something good about somebody, don't say nothing at all," a philosophy that I'd come to realize excluded both me and my father. I always believed that it was her constant nagging that killed him. Natural causes? She was the natural cause, or so I used to think.     So there she is saying in one breath that Gabby just died and in the same breath accusing me of ... what? Indifference perhaps? Indifference to an event that, as far as I knew, had occurred only in her mind? I shrugged figuring, What's the use?     "I think we should go and see what happening," she says.     And instantly dread is a leaden weight settling in my stomach; because superstition, no matter how firmly dispatched, no matter how deeply buried, is like a restless spirit that often will arise and cause even confirmed atheists to appeal to nonexistent deities ("Oh Jesus Christ!" they will yell, or "Lord have mercy!" they will bawl) when staring eyeball-to-eyeball with death.     Such was my predicament that morning.     Because, you see, it is one thing to entice a woman's fidelity away from her man, especially if that man is someone you disliked since childhood. But to hear your mother say that this same man is dead? Well, that's another matter entirely. Because what if by the most extraordinary coincidence she was right? What if he had committed suicide and his wife's infidelity with me was the cause? That's a heavy burden for anyone to bear.     So I'm trying to hold on to skepticism that is as fragile as the bravado of a terrified man in a cemetery at midnight, because I cannot deny that there were times my mother talked about things before they happened, like the day she turned to Pa and said, "Sheila dying," whereupon she put on her shoes and walked over to her best friend's house only to see Sheila lying dead on her bed when she opened the front door and went in.     According to her, Sheila appeared before her while she was sitting at the table picking rice and said, "I gone, Esther." Clear as day.     Now I know what you're saying and what I probably would say were I in your place. Shit or get off the pot; believe or don't believe. But you think it's easy, eh? You think it's easy?     I don't know what expression my face wore that morning, what caused my mother to stare at me, suck her teeth, shake her head, and say under her breath, "You young generation" before ordering me to "Come along. Let we go over there and see what happening."     "Come! Hurry up!" she said. "God forbid you might learn something with your unbelieving self."     And with that she slipped on a pair of my father's old shoes that she'd turned into slipslots by mashing down the heels, and strode to the door.     As soon as we got outside and I looked down the road toward Gladstone's bungalow and saw Gladstone stepping from his front door I relaxed.     "Well, look like you were wrong ...," I begin to say but am interrupted by a sharp "Shhh!" from Mumah at the same moment that a gray-haired lady whom I could have sworn was Gabby's grandmother comes out of the house behind him--old Miss Mimi who'd died and left her property for Gabby. Except that number one, Miss Mimi is long dead and buried and two, this old lady is walking upright and not bent over walking with a cane like Miss Mimi used to do.     As warm as the sun was that morning a shiver shook my body as it suddenly occurred to me that I'd just seen both Gladstone and Miss Mimi walk through the front door. Not the doorway, the door . A closed door. And Miss Mimi is descending the front steps holding Gabby's hand and walking down the gap toward us with Gabby staring straight ahead with his eyes focused on some spot in the distance while Miss Mimi is contemplating my mother eyeball-to-eyeball with a slightly smiling expression as though it's the most natural thing in the world for a jumbie to be walking in broad daylight and greeting living human beings. And I'm so wrapped in the surrealism of the moment that as they're getting close I raise my arm and open my mouth but can only manage to say, "Ga ..." before my mother snatches down my arm and snaps, "Don't touch him," wrenching me back to reality and making a U-turn still holding my arm and pivoting me with her so that we're headed back in the direction of our house. I can sense Gabby and Miss Mimi right behind us.     "Don't look back!" Mumah's voice is a hiss.     One day a few weeks later as we are recollecting the event I chuckle and say, "What would've happened if I'd turned around and looked back, eh? Think I would've turned into a pillar of salt? Heh heh heh." My mother just stares at me and says, " Now you bad, eh? Now you got a lot of mouth, eh? Why you didn't say that then? "     Touché. Because on the morning of the event I couldn't have uttered a word even if the thought had occurred to me.     My mother's firm grip on my arm kept me moving.     After a while I felt her release my arm. "Go on," she said. "You can look back now if you want."     I turned and looked over my shoulder. The road was as empty as a virgin's womb.     I stopped, my belly a yawning void, my mouth as dry as chalk. And the day suddenly had a different feel to it as if everything had stopped moving and every sound was coming to me as through a funnel: a barking dog, a crying infant, the fwap fwap fwap of clothes on a clothesline whipped by the breeze, the hooot hooot of a train whistle far away.     "He dead," my mother said, and her voice came to my ears as from a distance like the hooting of the train whistle.     When we reached our house and my mother turned to go inside I kept walking. To calm the turmoil in my head.     "Where you going?" she asked me.     "To the beach," I said.     Right away she says, "Wait. Let me go with you."     "I'll be all right, Mumah," I told her. She could be so protective sometimes. I kept walking.     The surface of the sea was as smooth as glistening glass. Breezes rustled the coconut tree limbs overhead and I watched sea bathers submerged shoulder-high and chatting, some swimming in solitary early-morning exercise as I wondered whether Gabby had discovered that his wife had been two-timing him and the person she'd been doing it with was me.     Just then in the freshness of morning came Gladstone strolling up the beach, hands in his pants pockets, head down. And if I was at all hesitant to acknowledge it before I knew for certain then that Gabby was dead as I watched him vanish as if entering an invisible door there in broad daylight, looking over his shoulder at me with a gaze that continues to be the last image before my eyes at night, a gaze that haunts my nightmares, a gaze of accusation.     But that morning, sitting at the foot of a coconut tree, I found myself thinking of the last day Gladstone and I spent at that same beach as childhood friends umpteen years ago. We had the day off from school--the Queen was visiting the country--and Gabby and I were just about to leave his mother's house for the beach. But before we could reach the door Miss Esther stopped him with, "Gladstone, where you going?"     "To the beach, Ma," he said.     "Look, go and change them pants," she's telling him. "You expect to traipse all the way to the beach with that old pants that frizzling out in the seat? You just pass for secondary school. You got to start holding up your head."     "But Ma, this is the pants that I always does bathe in," Gabby says. "What wrong with it? Look at Vic pants."     Actually they were my brother's pants.     Miss Esther is glancing at me and cutting her eyes in an expression that clearly says that mine is not exactly the kind of example she wants Gabby to follow, for more reasons than one, and she tells Gabby, "Look, go and change your pants. You en got no pride?"     Funny how details can survive in memory: the village quiet as a ghost town with almost everyone on the main road waiting for the Queen's motorcade to pass on the way to Government House; the searing heat of the overhead sun; the only sounds in the air--a cock crowing somewhere in somebody's yard, water gushing into a bucket under the standpipe down the gap, the paks! of dominoes slamming on a table under the umbrella shade of the evergreen tree next to the rumshop; Gabby and I approaching the standpipe with the sound of water gushing into Miss Crawford's bucket almost drowning out her voice and Miss Taylor standing next to her with her face sour as usual and with her bucket dangling from an arm so fat it filled the sleeve of her blouse.     Gabby and I said Good day.     Miss Crawford returned the greeting and asked us where we going in this hot sun.     Miss Crawford--she's dead now, God rest her in her grave--a woman who always had a smile and a pleasant thing to say. Didn't mind the children coming into her yard and picking the gooseberries off her tree, "As long as you don't leave my yard dirty," she would always say.     But Miss Taylor? A different story. Bad-minded. That day staring at Gabby and me as if we'd committed some grave offense simply by being children, dropping remarks about little vagabonds always running about with their backside at the door like their ass is a movie picture or some kind of entertainment people want to see. Some people don't know how to dress their children right, she's saying. Encouraging all kind of iniquity. Sodom and' Gomorrah, is what the world coming to. Sodom and Gomorrah.     And I'm itching to give her a piece of my mind. Why don't you mind your big, fat business? I want to say, knowing the remarks she's dropping are aimed at me. But I remain silent, restrained by the cut-ass I knew would be waiting for me when I returned home, no matter how wrong she was. That's the way it was then; not like now when children talk back to grown-ups as if they are equals.     When we reached the main road Gabby asked me if I had my uniform and books yet.     I remember taking a little time before answering, "I en going to high school."     Gabby stopped. "What you mean you en going?"     I couldn't tell him that from the minute we got the news that I'd passed, my father tried everything to come up with the money to buy uniform and textbooks and pay school fees but everybody had a hard-luck story--even Pas rum-drinking friends. Especially his rum-drinking friends, according to my mother. Everybody kept saying they wished they could lend him the money but they didn't have it. Even Uncle Fitz, my father's brother, saying how he catching hell too but giving my father a whole bag of sweet potatoes and yams to bring home, which made my mother grumble, wanting to know what we going do with a whole bag of ground provisions, eh? Sell it and pay school fees? And Pa defending his brother, telling my mother don't be ungrateful, Uncle Fitz give them what he can afford. And my mother beginning to answer back that she en know what that cheap old billy goat saving up his money for because he en got chick nor child and somebody going wait till he get pissy and dotish in his old age and rob every cent from him and it going serve him right.... But Pa butting in right there and saying, All right! All right! He en want to hear no more bad talk about his family. And my mother mumbling under her breath, What kind of family it is that so stingy? And Pa bawling how he en see her family helping, eh! He en see them helping!     Even Mr. Bailey that owned the cement warehouse Pa used to work at refused to lend him the money, saying, "How you going pay me back, eh? And what going happen next term? Borrow again? Besides," he said, "business tight."     For as long as I could remember, Gabby and I always talked about going to secondary school. We went to private lessons at Mr. Gittens on evenings after school; took the eleven-plus exam together, and the postman delivered the letters from the Ministry of Education the same day, causing Miss Esther to run over to our house and she and my mother jumping up and down saying, "They pass! They pass!"     But gradually two things began to eat away at the happiness in our house. Number one, I didn't pass for Wilberforce, the premier high school; I passed for Drakes Secondary; which is for those who passed the exam but not with top marks. Secondly, it appeared that without a scholarship even Drakes was out of the question.     Of course, I didn't tell all of this to Gabby when he asked me what I meant by I'm not going to high school. Instead I snapped "Everybody en pass for Wilberforce with a scholarship, you know. Everybody en lucky like you!"     Later I learned about the letter Gabby's parents got at the last minute informing them that Gabby hadn't received a scholarship after all. A mistake had been made. But that happened a few weeks later.     We reached the beach curving like a half-moon toward the lighthouse at Bingham's Point. Children were off from school because of the Queen's visit, splashing in the water, lying on the sand, poking into crab holes, tumbling and shrieking in the waves; I remember two men jogging toward the lighthouse (I remember thinking that they were tourists because back then jogging wasn't fashionable as it is now, and people used to think it was a big joke to see foreigners running, puffing and blowing, with no place to go); I could see heads far out between the yachts at anchor, floating and bobbing like buoys.     To the right, behind the barbed wire fence, oily-skinned whitepeople lay with their skins glistening in the sun; waiters weaved between beach chain and blankets balancing trays on their palms; a whitechild tumbled after a red-and-blue beachball that was nearly as big as he was; two boys about the same age as Gabby and me, one a backra with sand-colored hair, the other brown-skinned with dark-brown curls were patting the sand into a sand castle; on the patio of the yacht dub, grown-ups, some in pants-and-shirt, suits, dresses, others in bathing suits, some black, some white, a couple of Indian-looking ones, were chatting and drinking just like the people in the rum advertisements that come on the screen before the movie pictures at the Royale Theatre.     Gabby and I waded around the fence and the sign that read, KEEP OFF THE BEACH PROPERTY OF THE YACHT CLUB TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED     But as we splashed through the waves to keep away from the beach, keeping our eyes out for the watchman and his stick, I heard, "Hey you!" The backra boy with the sand-colored hair. "What you doing here?" he wanted to know.     I stopped. "You want to do something about it?" I asked him.     Gabby squared his shoulders and said, "Yeah! You want to fight? Come out here if you bad!"     The backra boy looked at his brown-skinned friend, stood up and began running toward the club, leaving the brown-skinned boy kneeling and dribbling wet sand through his fingers and staring at Gabby and me like a watchdog guarding us from running away till the whiteboy came back.     "I think he gone for the watchman," Gabby said and took off bird-speed, splashing onto the beach and running toward the other fence that boxed off the yacht club beach, kicking up sand behind him as he's running.     At the same time the watchman comes rushing from the side of the yacht club with a big stick raised in the air and hollering, "Get off! Get off this beach!" Like it was his beach.     What an ass. Some of those whitepeople probably were tourists and we always were told to "Keep away from tourists. Them tourists have diseases." We wouldn't have stayed on that beach anyway.     Years later when the barbed wire fence came down (by then Gladstone was minister of tourism and culture and first thing he did was to issue a ministerial order outlawing private beaches and requiring public access), I lay on that same beach and saw the same watchman with his back bent, hair now gray, picking up trash--sweet-drink bottles, paper, used condoms--an old man with a shame-faced look, eyes downcast and not looking into my face, the same man who always used to chase us with his stick.     And that day years later as I'm lying there watching him, a group of young boys stopped and a little runty one in the group hollered, "Hey! Watchy!" while the other boys flung a hail of pebbles at the old man, with one of them shouting, "Where your stick now, Watchy?"     And the old man raised his arm to shield his face, then lunged as if to chase them. But he didn't. His authority had been stripped away.     And sitting there on the beach that day it occurred to me that for this bare-headed old man wearing khaki short pants and canvas-and-rubber-tire zapats on his feet, independence was a windy storm that whipped his authority away and left him naked to the jeers and stones of little boys. But I couldn't feel sorry for him for long, the son of a bitch. He got what he deserved, because here was a man who took out his dick to piss on people and the wind changed, blowing the piss right back in his face.     Anyway, on the day when the Queen was visiting and the watchman chased us, Gabby and I didn't stop running till we reached about halfway between the yacht club and the fish market. We dropped our shirts under a manchineel tree and bent over, catching our breath.     The sunlight was like sparkling jewels on the surface of the sea.     Out in the harbor, huge cargo ships sat like dark sea monsters.     A motorboat roared past not far offshore, trailing a woman on skis and a plume of spray and spreading swells that rocked the fishing boats at anchor.     That day Gabby and I swam out to the fishing boats, dove for sea eggs and ate them raw, built a sand castle, climbed one of the coconut trees for coconuts. It was a good day. And while we lay on the sand we noticed some boys playing cricket down near the fish market.     Gabby said, "Leh we go for a play."     But I said no. I didn't feel like playing cricket. As usual I was feeling good just lying on the sand with the sun turning the water on my skin to salt.     I watched the fellas taking turns batting, bowling, and fielding. I couldn't help but laugh when Gabby dropped the bat and flung his arms in the air disgusted after he got bowled out, the ball whizzing between the two upright wicket sticks behind him.     I smiled when Gabby dove like a professional cricketer to catch a ball then threw it up in the air hollering, "You out! You out!" and grinned at me excited because he'd caught the ball and out the boy that hit it (Gabby was one of the clumsiest boys in the village, always dropping the ball, so this was a special achievement for him that day).     I waved back and smiled but he'd already turned back to the game. My friend. I'd known him all my life, it seemed. We were even born in the same month. But until that day I'd never really thought of him as my friend before--he just was.     But as I was soon to discover, friendships are as impermanent as shifting sand. As I sat on the beach on the morning of Gladstone's death mourning the long-ago loss of a childhood friendship, Isamina Belle too was making a discovery. Copyright © 1999 Agymah Kamau. All rights reserved.