As Flies to Whatless Boys

As Flies to Whatless Boys

by Robert Antoni


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As Flies to Whatless Boys has been longlisted for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award !

Winner of the 2014 OCM Bocas Prize!

Included in World Literature Today 's Nota Benes, Summer 2014

One of Edwidge Danticat's Best Books of 2013, the New Yorker

A Favorite Novel of 2013, Tin House

"William's account of young love attests to Antoni's fluency in the poetry of nostalgia. In words as vibrant as the personalities he creates, Antoni deftly captures unconquered territories and the risks we’re willing to take exploring them."
Publishers Weekly

"The emotional influence of Willy’s narrative—his loving descriptions of the people who surround him—is profoundly effective...Strikes strong emotional chords."
Kirkus Reviews

"Antoni...has written a novel epic in scope driven by outbursts of fine writing."

"A rollicking 19th-century colonial tale blends history with imagination."
Library Journal

"Robert Antoni gracefully combines layers of idealism, love, and a plague of the Black Vomit in this historical novel."
World Literature Today

"It brings the travails and small delights of Willy Tucker to the centre stage of our imaginings, asking only that we accompany him on this unforgettable voyage."
Caribbean Beat

"This tragic historical novel, accented with West Indian cadence and captivating humour, provides an unforgettable glimpse into 19th-century T&T. The book’s narrator, Willy, falls headover-heels for the enthralling and wise Marguerite Whitechurch. Coming from the gentry, Marguerite is a world away from Willy's labouring class."
The Trinidad Guardian , one of the Best Caribbean Books of the Year

"Reminds us that storytelling is fundamental to the human condition...A contending classic of postcolonial literature."
Trinidad Guardian , Review/2014 OCM Bocas Prize Feature

"Reminds us that storytelling is fundamental to the human condition...A contending classic of postcolonial literature."
Trinidad Guardian , 2014 OCM Bocas Prize Feature

"I have been hooked on Robert Antoni since his first novel, Divina Trace. His new one, As Flies to Whatless Boys , is a marvel of narrative and documents, which collide to create a book that is at times breathtaking and tragic and at other times laugh-out-loud hilarious."
Edwidge Danticat, who selected As Flies to Whatless Boys as a Best Book of 2013 for the New Yorker ‘s Page-Turner Blog

"A bittersweet coming-of-age tale of tragedy, chicanery, high ideals, harsh realities, and the hard choice between love and family duty, As Flies to Whatless Boys is highly recommended."
Midwest Book Review

" As Flies to Whatless Boys is a kind of complex word game, a historical narrative in a lilting Caribbean accent, wrapped around with an oddball love story in a wild form of English that seems to create itself as it goes along. In between, snippets of contemporary records provide foils for both these linguistic inventions."
Historical Novel Society

In 1845 London, an engineer, philosopher, philanthropist, and bold-faced charlatan, John Adolphus Etzler, has invented machines that he thinks will transform the division of labor and free all men. He forms a collective called the Tropical Emigration Society (TES), and recruits a variety of London citizens to take his machines and his misguided ideas to form a proto-socialist, utopian community in the British colony of Trinidad.

Among his recruits is a young boy (and the book's narrator) named Willy, who falls head-over-heels for the enthralling and wise Marguerite Whitechurch. Coming from the gentry, Marguerite is a world away from Willy's laboring class. As the voyage continues, and their love for one another strengthens, Willy and Marguerite prove themselves to be true socialists, their actions and adventures standing in stark contrast to Etzler's disconnected theories.

Robert Antoni's tragic historical novel, accented with West Indian cadence and captivating humor, provides an unforgettable glimpse into nineteenth-century Trinidad & Tobago.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781617751561
Publisher: Akashic Books
Publication date: 09/03/2013
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Robert Antoni is the author of the landmark novel Divina Trace, for which he received a Commonwealth Writers' Prize and an NEA grant. His other books include Blessed Is the Fruit, My Grandmother's Erotic Folktales, and Carnival. He was a 2010 Guggenheim Fellow (for his work on As Flies to Whatless Boys ), and recently received the NALIS Lifetime Literary Award from the Trinidad & Tobago National Library. He now lives in Manhattan and teaches in the graduate writing program at the New School University.

Read an Excerpt


Aboard the Rosalind

We'd been at sea five days already, and I'd yet to catch a glimpse of Marguerite. Not even a glimpse. Despite my untiring, solitary wanderings of the deck allotted to the third-class passengers. In all weather and at all hours of the day and night. Despite my continually bouffed attempts to gain access to other parts of the ship. Son, no sooner was this voyage underway than it was made clear that each class would be restricted to those areas of the ship that coincided with we rank and privilege. Not only deck space and sleeping quarters. But also the designated dining halls, saloons and parlours for recreation and relaxation, in addition to washrooms and privy facilities. The third- and first-class passengers not only did not intermingle — socially nor for any other reason a-tall — we were, for the most part, oblivious to each other's existence. There was even a steerage class that I'd remain ignorant of till Papee exposed them to me towards the end of the journey.

I soon came to realise this ship wasn't nothing more than a miniature floating replica of the city we left behind: everybody had they place. With the wealthy passengers congregating forward and nearer the main deck in they elegant cabins, reclining beneath butler-held parasols on the cushioned lounges of they sundecks. And the farther astern and deeper into the ship's bowels you descended — like the basements and sewers of London — the more decrepit the environs and they inhabitants.

Papee seemed the sole passenger able to sidestep all this vigilant segregation. After taking his breakfast with us of porridge tasting like shredded pasteboard, tea concocted from used leaves stirred into lukewarm water — a dollop of coagulated milk plopped in if we were lucky — he'd return to the cabin he shared with Mum to change his outfit. Now Papee put on he new white linen shirt. Suspenders, embroidered vest, pinstripe pants. Silk cravat & frock coat & gloves & tall top hat. Son, I had my own set of fancified clothes too — newly tailored for the selfsame reason as Papee's — but on Mum's orders those garments lay packed up in the trunk with the rest of the Tuckers' luggage, who-the-arse-knew-where down in the hold. Papee then made his way forward, past the decksteward posted behind the galley, to the first-class saloon. Where he spent the rest of the morning and a good part of the afternoon too, conversing with Mr. Whitechurch and a handful of other gentlemen. I also knew Papee visited the Whitechurches in they first-class cabin, located below the forecastle deck. Adjacent to the cabins of the Etzlers and the Stollmeyers. Those accommodations, Papee assured us — with they private sitting rooms, four-poster beds, and bathrooms with full-length porcelain tubs — were superiour even to Captain Damphier's own.

For me those parts of the Rosalind seemed as far away as Marguerite's Knightsbridge had from my old East End borough. And just as out of reach.

Son, you got to realise that the sole reason I'd looked forward to this voyage with such excitement was so Marguerite and me could be together. Much as we could want. And nobody could stop us neither. Yet now the passage was underway, after all the setbacks, I didn't even know for sure if she was aboard ship. Even if she was the fact that she'd be travelling in upper class made her perfectly inaccessible.

But after five days I'd had it up to my nostril-holes. And that same afternoon I spied for two long hours on the deck-steward stationed behind the galley. Till I watched him step-way from he post a few seconds to weewee over the leeward rail. Now I hurried past he turned back, leaping a low railing, descending a short flight of steps. Bouncing up face-first with a set of elegant passengers, all dressed to the nines in full feather. Stylish couples promenading the deck arm-in-arm, one-behind-the-next in circular fashion — like the entire operation was orchestrated only so the ladies didn't decapitate each other with the brims of they bloody hats — hot toddies holding in they whitegloved hands. An elderly couple even accompanied by they primped-up poodle, the dog wearing a red velvet vest just like Etzler.

A few minutes later I happened to glance through a window into one of plush parlours, my heart beating out a warm hole inside my chest the same instant: there sat Mrs. Whitechurch, together with a half-dozen other fancy ladies and young maidens. At one end of the room stood an upright piano, with a pair of portly little women sitting on the bench, playing a duet and giggling. A large silver bowl of strawberries-and-cream on the table behind Mrs. Whitechurch, together with an ample tray of biscuits & pastries & finger-sandwiches. Livery-clad steward to pour out they tea or coffee from shining silver pots, holding in each of he whitegloved hands. Needless-to-say, my own lunch a couple hours earlier had included a single boiled potato and a piece of stewed bullbeef so impregnated with salt, I'd spit it back in tin plate in one. And there wouldn't be no blasted afternoon tea for the likes of none of us.

Yet it wasn't all these lavish victuals adorning the lace-covered table behind Mrs. Whitechurch that had me so defeated. It wasn't even that Mum and my sisters were barred all entrance to this particular parlour. It was the fact that Marguerite wasn't sitting on the Chesterfield couch beside she aunt.

I turned round and walked straight back to my own deck, in my own third-class portion of the ship — hopping the railing and striding boldface past the deck-steward — like I was daring he arse to give me some kinda backbite.

* * *

The following morning, as I stood at the rail staring-way at a dirty-looking, whitecap-littered sea, I got an idea. Caper. The beginnings of a plan. Son, by this point I was so desperate to see Marguerite, I never even stopped to contemplate just how vie-kee-vie this caper could be. Nor how dangerous. That's how bazodee I was — too-tool-bay, assassataps, third degree of tabanca. And you got to remember that I was a restless fifteen years of age too. Reckless.

I turned round and left the deck and the handful of passengers wrapped up in they tattered blankets, descending the narrow stairs. Three levels below to the cabin I shared with my sisters. I knew we cabins would be empty at this hour of the morning, especially now we'd gotten over our initial bouts of seasickness. And in any case we'd all learnt quick enough that the best place to be when we felt queasy was up on deck in the fresh air. Mum would be in the third-class parlour with a circle of other women, sitting on blankets on the plank flooring — Georgina and Mary as well — all with balls of yarn in they laps and a pair of needles in they hands knitting-way. Son, whatever-the-arse kinda garments they could possibly be making I couldn't tell you — sweaters for the tropics? Sometimes they played draughts, gossiped about Lady So-and-So or the French comte travelling in upper class, or they sang songs with the children. Amelia playing with a handful of girls nearby.

Papee would be up on deck with the other men. Deep in discussion over some topic relevant to life in Trinidad or the TES. Unless they were hearing to a lecture from Mr. Etzler heself, or the comte — only two gentlemen aboard who made a point of venturing daily into the commoners' part of the ship — or he'd be forward in the saloon with Mr. Whitechurch.

The cabin I shared with my sisters measured 51/2 ft x 51/2 ft x 51/2 ft. With the four bunks built perpendicular to the bulkheads, two on either side, a narrow passageway between into which the door opened. Meaning, of course, that I had to stoop down boseé-backed to enter into the cabin. And I could only sleep in my bunk with my legs folded up tight like a crab. Beneath the lower births were spaces for clothing and other articles. In addition to the tin poe in case one of us needed to use the toilet (or vomit, as Amelia and Mary had done those first couple nights — when we were all still adjusting to the constant roll and jar of the ship). A pitch-oil lamp hanging from its hook on the forward bulkhead.

Mum and Papee had the equivalent, adjacent cabin. The difference being that on the hull-side, midway between the upper bunk and ceiling, they had a porthole six inches in diameter that opened on a bevel. So when we left our two doors latched back — and we were fortunate enough to be on the windward side of the ship — a cool breeze swept through both cabins.

So far our nights had been tolerable enough.

Mum and Papee used they lower bunks to stow additional clothes, blankets, and other necessities for the voyage. Including the pasteboard box with a dozen apples packed in straw — purchased by Papee at the last minute before we boarded the ferry in London — which we'd all vowed solemn not to touch before our sixth week at sea. Son, the truth is we considered weself fortunate. All thanks to the government of Great Britain. Though nobody aboard knew nothing about none of that bubball but us.

* * *

I shut the door, locking myself into the cabin I shared with my sisters. Getting down on my knees to rummage beneath Georgina's berth, through her bundle of clothes. Till I found she white lace brassiere. Pair of square-toed shoes. Mary's bloomers with the little pink bows at the hips in the bundle beside it. I took up they little purse — I knew without having to look inside — containing the small cake of Cashmere powder and tiny pot of rouge.

I crossed over to my parents' cabin, which Papee'd left open to air out too. There wasn't nothing much of value to thief anyway, except maybe the apples. I latched the door shut behind me, stripping off my clothes, dressing myself in my sisters' undergarments. But as I went to pull on Mary's bloomers I realised my own drawers would suffice: I stuffed the bloomers into one cup of Georgina's brassiere. Then I turned round to ransack my father's stack of clothes, balling up two of his handkerchiefs and shoving them into the other cup. Now I sat on the edge of the lower birth rolling Mum's silk stockings over my pointed toes. Up over my stringy calves. Clipping them into the snaps of she French garters. From a package wrapped careful in tissue paper I removed Mum's crimson-coloured silk gown — shoulderless, with mutton-sleeves and a heavy quilted border round the hem of the skirt. In a flurry of excitement she'd sewn the gown out for sheself in the final days before the voyage — Mum planned to wear it to the Captain's Ball when we reached the Azores. I shook the frock out and stepped awkward inside. Struggling for the longest time — my spindly arms twisted up and contorted behind my back, navelhole sucked in tight — before I managed to fasten the seven tiny hooks running the length of my spinebones. Exhaling a slow breath.

Using Mum's handmirror and a wad of cotton wool, I brushed the rouge onto my cheeks. Dusted Cashmere powder round the periphery of my face. My neck & shoulders & chest. I pulled out Mum's black lace scarf and spread it overtop my head, tying a floppy bow beneath my chin. Her black Spanish shawl with the little embroidered bullfighters and its stringy fringe spread over my shoulders. I pulled on her black lace gloves, reaching to mid-forearm. Last, I squeezed my duckfeet inside Georgina's square-toed shoes — which I can assure you wasn't no kinda easy enterprise atall — buckling the straps behind.

I sat on the bunk, waiting and listening.

Before long I heard the clanging of the steward's bell. Calling the third-class passengers for lunch in they dining hall, two levels above my head. I listened to the thumps and scuffs of they boots as passengers filed into the hall, clatter of tin bowls laid down on the rough plank tables. Even the scrapings of the steward's ladle against the sides of he stewpot.

Son, despite my hunger, I was happy enough to avoid this lunch.

I waited a few more minutes. Till I felt sure all the passengers had assembled theyself in the dining room. Then I unlatched the door.

But at the same moment Amelia came busting through, shoving me back —

Sweet Jesus! she says, staring up into my face.

Son, I couldn't tell you if I felt more embarrassed, panicked, or geegeeree out my bloody skin. But after a few seconds her expression changed. Now Amelia looked up at me with a playful, mischievous amusement —

Good to see you're in a better mood, she says. You were looking so bored and sulky!

Amelia reached past me, searching through the things under Mum's bunk —

Seen Moffie? she asks. Mum told me she packed her under here.

Amelia grabbed up her rag doll and started out. But she stopped short, turning round again —

Better hurry, she says. There's cocoa left over from upper class.

Amelia paused, smiling —

Mind you don't smudge your powder drinking it!

She pulled the door shut behind her.

I flipped the latch and sat on the bunk again, catching my breath. Waiting a few more minutes. Till I'd mustered enough courage to slip out the cabin. I hurried up the narrow stairs, past the noisy dining room, stepping lightfoot as I could manage in Georgina's shoes on the uneven flooring. Though wide at the bottom with its thickly quilted hem, Mum's frock hung a foot-and-a-half short, exposing my bony ankles. Stockings stretched tight over them. Now I had to hide myself for the next hour, maybe two — someplace that gave me easy access to the upper-class deck — till it came time for the ladies to take they tea. I crossed the open deck, vacant with all the passengers down at lunch. A stiff breeze blowing Mum's heavy skirt between my legs, adding to my difficulties of crossing the shifting boards in Georgina's shoes.

I locked myself into the men's privy — the one assigned to the third-class passengers — immediately realising my mistake. The place stenching, with a putrid black puddle in the middle of the floor, sloshing side-to-side with the slow roll of the ship. The bench, walls, even the compartment's ceiling so soiled with nastiness, I feared I'd ruin Mum's fancy gown in one.

I let myself out, exhaling a long breath, crossing over the boards again. Sequestering myself this time in the women's toilet. Which I can assure you was plenty more agreeable, odours tolerable, sitting safe enough to one side of the bench. With the open hole just beside me, blue-gray sea slipping past far below. I untied the scarf beneath my chin, leant my head into a back corner of the stall, shutting my eyes. A salty breeze wafting up through the hole. Rhythmic slap of waves washing past the hull, distant squawk from a handful of gulls perpetually trailing the ship. And after a few minutes I entered into a familiar dreamplace. Memoryspace. Like a daydream, only a notch or two deeper. Floating alongside the slap-wash slap-wash of the waves, soft salt-breeze billowing up against my cheeks.

* * *

Victoria Station: piercing screech of metal wheels. The Tucker clan following Papee's lead — five of us in a long line squeezing each other's hands and Amelia's rag doll's hands too — so as not to lose weself on the crowded platform. Weaving we way along like a string of squids. Back-and-forth amongst the excited, shouting passengers, everybody shoving toute-baghi in direction of the Bicester train.

Meanwhile, Papee searched for Mr. Powell and the Whitechurches.

A handful of TES members who'd once belonged to the military had dressed theyself in full regalia for the big event. They'd brought they rusty muskets so a volley of shots could be fired to announce the takeoff of the Satellite. Another group, dressed also in unrelated military garb, formed an orchestra that included a big bass drum, tuba, several bugles, and a triangle played with great delicacy by a chuffchuff former member of the Royal Guard. According to rumor the orchestra had met at Crossed Sabers Tavern early the previous evening. They'd only just exited this facility, after spending the entire night synchronizing. Needless-to-say the majority of them were having trouble not only blowing into they instruments, or beating them, but standing atop they feet. The Satellite Ensemble — as they dubbed theyself — rode in an open car adjacent to one the Tucker clan travelled in for we journey to Bicester.

My three sisters put down they hampers and went forward to listen. Whilst back in the compartment where the rest of my family settled weself, Mum napped, despite the jostling train and obnoxious music. Papee studying his mechanical drawings spread out cross his lap, oversized and dog-eared, scribbling last-minute notes.

After a short while Mr. Powell arrived, already red-faced and smiling. He greeted my father, squeezing onto the bench beside him, laying his jacket over the sidearm. The two men entering into a whispered discussion of some glitch in the Connective Apparatus. Papee pointing to something on his drawing, running his finger cross to where the ropes connected with the Prime Mover. Now they sat in silence a minute. Me listening to the chugging train and various va-va-vooms of the Ensemble. Then — as if in answer to they quandary — Mr. Powell reached into the pocket of his folded jacket, fumbling round, producing a pint-bottle of whiskey. He uncorked it with his teeth, offering my father some. But Papee waved him off, Mr. Powell tipping he bottle back for a generous swig.


Excerpted from "As Flies to Whatless Boys"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Robert Antoni.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

First Message,
3 Letters,
Preamble: Awaiting the Tide,
1. Aboard the Rosalind,
2. Night Prowling,
3. 27 Flickering Churchcandles,
4. Minstrel Passage,
5. The Captain's Ball,
6. 7 Apples,
7. Arrival,
8. Disembarkation,
9. A Second Departure,
10. Chaguabarriga,
11. Pepperpot,
12. Black Vomit,
13. Flies,
14. Captain Taylor's Schooner,
15. An Ancient Arawak Trace,
16. Flow,
17. When Bazil Call,
Postscript: Busting a Leave,
3 Letters,
Final Message,
Appendix (e-book extras),
Etzler's Play,
Etzler's Machines,
Thoreau's Review of Etzler,

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