Geoffrey Philp, already well established as a gifted poet, has hit the fiction genre with a captivating collection of short stories: Uncle Obadiah and the Alien. In the title story of the collection, an ugly alien, looking very much like Margeret Thatcher, crashes his spaceship into Uncle Obadiah’s farm and soon decides that Uncle’s best Lambs Collie is the antidote to reverse the unfortunate Margeret Thatcher look-alike syndrome that has swept through his planet.
Writing in patois and Standard English, Philp’s stories are immensely readable, with strong, well-observed characters involved in often hilarious, but sometimes painful conflicts. The main character, in many of the stories, is a young teenager, so that even when describing painful situations, the voice of the main character is unsentimental and practical. In 'My Brother’s Keeper', Umpire, a teenager living with his mother and alcoholic uncle, has to face not only the sudden death of his father, who went away to America on farm work, but the just as sudden appearance of a brother, his father’s son. While Umpire is 'barefoot and tear-up, tear-up', the young American brother has all the new clothes and is immediately accepted and made a fuss of by the adults in the family. Umpire tells the story of coming to terms with his brother, without self pity, and in the process draws vivid portraits of the boys in the neighborhood.
The stories involving children are lively and insightful and there are few other Jamaican writers who have so strongly captured the dynamics of a Jamaican childhood, or rather, boyhood. And as such the stories deserve special attention from teachers, social workers, all those working with young people.
Philp is equally strong in stories involving adults. Most, including 'Softers', a very interesting story of a loser who wins out in the end, and 'The River', a timely story of a man turning away from his career in ganja dealing, which won the Canute Brodhurst prize from The Caribbean Writer, are peopled with well drawn characters. Philp’s strength is in making those recognizable Jamaican characters, believable without being stereotypes.
Three of the stories are set in Miami where Philp lives and works as a Professor of English at Miami Dade Community College. Of the three, 'Thin Line' is the most succesful and turns the spotlight on a theme that occurs, with less prominence, in some of the other stories, the problems of violence and abuse in the home. Unlike the stories set in Jamaica with their rich background of community, Bruce, the main character, seems alone, isolated with the weight of his problem, a violent and abusive father. The way he chooses to solve this problem highlights the difference in cultures and the dangers of alienation.
Uncle Obadiah and the Alien is a welcome addition to the growing body of Jamaican literature. It is published by Peepal Tree Press in England and will shortly be available in book stores. If you don’t see it, ask for it. Geoffrey Philp is a Jamaican writer with whom Jamaican readers should become very familiar.