As Flies to Whatless Boys is a 2013 novel by Robert Antoni. It features a plot-driven triptych structure with rich language drawn from the author’s diverse, cultural background. The novel follows the story of the young William Tucker on a journey with his family to Trinidad to start a fresh life guided by the eccentric J. A. Etzler and his mysterious machine, the Satellite. Antoni uses an allusion to Shakespeare to frame and foreshadow events to come later in the book.
As Flies to Whatless Boys distinctively reinforces its West Indian style with Antoni’s custom vernaculars derived from his upbringing in Trinidad. The language used is diverse and complex, ranging from a blend of middle-class British English with Trinidadian creole to a tech-influenced flavor of Trinidadian creole used to write emails to the author in his book.
Though a work of fiction, As Flies to Whatless Boys is based on the real-life story of technological utopian John Adolphus Etzler and his Tropical Emigration Society. However, significant poetic license was taken in the adaptation of the story from truth to fiction.
Chronologically, the story of the Tucker’s move to Trinidad begins from 15-year-old Willy’s perspective, when he and his father (Papee) were called to a meeting with the Prime Minister in London. Unsure what to expect, they arrived to hear that they are being sent to Trinidad as part of the “Tropical Emigration Society”. This experimental colony was led by Mr. Etzler; a man who the government had deemed dangerous and untrustworthy. The Prime Minister informs Papee that he is being sent to keep an eye on Mr. Etzler and report back to the British government about any suspicious behavior. Having finalized the trip, Willy then recalls the train ride he and his family took to see the trial run of Mr. Etzler’s infamous machine.
Onboard the train, Willy, his mother, father and 3 sisters – Georgia, Mary and Amelia board the train in London with the rest of the Tropical Emigration Society. During the ride, Willy is introduced to an upper class family – the Whitechurches. Willy immediately falls for their niece, Marguerite, who was born without vocal cords and communicates by writing in her notebook. When they reach the Satellite Field (where Mr. Etzler will demonstrate the machine that will supposedly negate the need for slavery and revolutionize labor practices), Willy escorts Marguerite behind the stands so they can be alone. Much to Willy’s surprise, Marguerite tells Willy how much she mistrusts and dislikes Mr. Etzler and his machine. As they are talking, the trial is not going well for Mr. Etzler. After 3 attempts, the Satellite has failed to work, leaving Mr. Etzler, Mr. Powell, and Willy’s father mulling over the blueprints, still with hope for the machine and its future in Trinidad.
On the boat, Willy describes the class separation. His family is part of the working middle class, so they have tighter quarters below deck, while the Whitechurches and other upper class families get the luxury of space, servants, and fancy food. However, he soon discovers a lower class that lives below them, with little to no food or room to sleep. In his desperate attempts to find Marguerite aboard the boat, he comes across the storage rooms where the upper class food is kept. It is implied that he begins distributing the food to lower classes, while also eating some for himself and sharing the secret room with Marguerite.
Willy also talks about a French Comte aboard the ship, who was traveling to Trinidad to meet indentured servants who would work on his plantations there. Mr. Etzler (who was against slave labor), and the comte did not get along, The one interaction they had during their journey ended with the comte insulting and doubting the effectiveness of Etzler’s innovations, offering him 1000 gold doubloons if it worked. In response, Etzler decides to show off his mechanism for crystallizing sugar without heat in a demonstration for the people onboard. After revealing that it was simply rock candy, the people grew angry and began to rush towards Etzler. Seeing the potential danger, Captain Damphier swung down from a rope, tying Etzler up in the rigging, and swinging him up into the sails, suspended above the crowd. Etzler remained there for several days before Stollmeyer climbed up and retrieved him. The doctor on board (Dr. Worthington) began treating him - much to Stollmeyer’s disapproval - but was most concerned with his mental state. For a few days Etzler remained incomprehensible; when he regained speech his creative mind took over his scientific mind as he began writing plays and other articles.
Soon after, the ship reaches the Azores. While the crew is greeted by natives coming on board to celebrate and party, Willy and Marguerite slip down to the bottom levels of the ship, where the comte has been keeping live sheep. Upon releasing the sheep onto the land, the two of them went swimming and watched the fireworks from land. The next day, the ship takes off again, reaching Trinidad days later. Once they land, Etzler introduces everyone to Captain Taylor and Mr. Carr, 2 agents that were sent to Trinidad by the TES before they arrived to scout out and negotiate a plot of land to build their colony on. However, just minutes into their introduction, Captain Taylor passes out, falling off the crate he was standing on and dies. (Possibly from drunkenness?)
After everyone leaves the ship, the Tucker family meets Vincent, a boy whose parents work for Mr. Johnston. They introduce themselves to Mr. Johnston, who is pleased to see they have arrived, and shows them to the house he has reserved for them before the leave for Chaguabarriga. The departure date for the colony gets continuously pushed back, allowing Marguerite and Willy to spend one more night together while their families share Christmas dinner. While trying to transport the Satellite off the barge, it sinks, causing a few more days of work for the men in order to get it back to land. Willy also finds a dead hummingbird outside one night, inspiring him to perform his first dissection, stuff the bird with cotton, and keep it in a box for Marguerite. Finally, the departure day arrives. When everyone gathers however, Papee reads a letter from Mr. Etzler, explaining how he and Mr. Stollmeyer had left on “official TTC business” (Mr. Etzler had gone to Venezuela to get a Main Grant for his project). The men are furious, realizing that neither leader had planned on accompanying them to Chaguabarriga.
When the arrived to Chaguabarriga, they realized their small plot of land was surrounded by dense mangroves, swamps, and a dirty lake. They were additionally at the foot of the mountain, and apart from orchards and gardens that Mr. Carr had planted before their arrival, their only other shelter was made up of bamboo poles and hammocks, with only a partial roof. The colonists were shocked, realizing how primitive and far from finished their new “home” was.
As they were trying to move the Satellite onto shore, it fell into the water once again, causing Willy and the other men to spend the first three days attempting to push and tumble the box onto land. On the fourth day, their land flooded, forcing everyone to spend the entire day trying to drain and save their precious gardens. Soon after, a bunch of the colonists decided to abandon the colony, stealing the ship that had brought them their (Miss Bee) and sail off to the Prescott Estate, a nearby plot of land owned by a wealthier man. With only a few men left, Mr. Whitechurch got very sick with a native disease that they called Black Vomit; his skin turned yellow, his eyes swelled up, and he began throwing up what Willy described as looking like “black tar”. He soon died and was buried, giving Papee his silver pocket watch before he passed.
With the Miss Bee gone and no way to escape, Papee decides to put all his energy into rebuilding an old, rotting schooner that was stuck in the sand on their beach. Willy, Papee and John spend all their time digging out the boat while simultaneously mounting it on a pile of sand (supported by bamboo poles), and taking apart the Satellite’s crate (leaving the machine in the water) to use as fresh wood. One day, the colonists wake up to find the people who sailed to the Prescott Estate have returned and are burning the Satellite box’s wood for fire. The argument that arose between Papee and the returning colonists was interrupted however, by Mr. Craddock, who threw up black vomit. After he died, the returning colonists got scared again, and fled once more. While working on the schooner days later, Papee also becomes sick. His skin turned yellow and he began getting seizures, but there was no black vomit. He seemed to push past it, working harder than ever on the schooner, but finally one morning Willy noticed the black vomit trickling out the side of his mouth. John, noticing this, begins to construct a stretcher to carry Papee back to town. Once it was ready, John, Esteban, Orinoko and Willy carry Papee over the mountains for days, trying to get Papee back home and to a hospital before it’s too late.
When they reached the Port of Spain, they bring Papee back to the Tucker family’s house, where his mother and sister are shocked to see them. Realizing the doctors won’t come to the house, the put Papee back on the stretcher and carry him to the hospital. The doctors, seeing his symptoms, decide the only cure is to leach most of the blood out of Papee. When Willy sees his father unconscious, he realizes that his father would die if he stayed there. Not knowing what else to do, he takes Papee out of the operating room and carries him home. Papee never regained consciousness and dies soon after.
When he gets home, he finds a letter from Marguerite, informing him that she and her aunt were leaving for London, but that she wanted to see him again before she left. Rushing down to the water, Willy debates whether or not he should go back with her or stay and make a life for himself and his family in Trinidad. Down at the dock, he witnesses many of the colonists from the Prescott Estate being unloaded from a boat, all dead. In the end, he watches Marguerite’s ship take off, deciding to stay in Trinidad with his family.
Readers are first introduced to the theme of social class when the main character Willy addresses the awkwardness of being aboard the ship. He states that the “third and first class passengers not only did not intermingle… we were, for the most part oblivious to each others existence.” Willy goes on to explain how the atmosphere on the boat is similar to that of London, where the upper class passengers congregate around the “main deck in they elegant cabins, reclining beneath butler-held parasols on the cushioned lounges of they sundecks” while the working-lower class remain “deep in the ship’s bowels, like the sewers London.” The contrast between the upper and lower class can further be seen when both types of cabins are described. The Whitechurches, a wealthy family on the boat live in a cabin that has “private sitting rooms, four-poster beds, and bathrooms with full-length porcelain tubs” making their room superior than that of the Captain's. On the other side, Willy’s family lives in a cabin which is 5 and a half feet in every dimension with four bunk beds crammed inside and in order for Willy to sleep he must “fold his legs like a crab”. However, these conditions are nothing when compared to those who lived in the stern. These passengers lay “naked to the waist” in the basement level of the ship, sleeping in black puddles and “straw mattresses. The social class portrayed in this novel is very literal in the way that the wealthiest passengers live on the top level, while the working class lives in the middle and the poorest of passengers are subjected to the basement. (pg. 123)
The theme of social class is also presented in Mr. Etzlers reason for building his satellite. The contraption was intended to replace the need for slaves. He believed that “human beings procured by a trade… were a capital crime in all civilized countries of the world with the exception of the United States.” Etzler goes on to say that his machine would “instantly crush sugar canes of the greatest quantity… by the power of Mother Nature and his Satellite alone. Without the use of any manual labour.” Throughout the voyage the readers are given the impression that Etzler’s satellite is supposed to bring about a revolution in the society that they are in. By essentially removing the need for slaves he would be potentially changing the way people were subjected to the so lowest social class. (pg. 71).
Much of the novel As Flies to Whatless Boys involves the struggles against the public and social obstacles that the lovers must face in order the be happy. Although it is never directly addressed, it can be implied that the relationship between Willy and Marguerite is not a norm in their society. Willy, being a 15 years old working class passenger is not supposed to be with Marguerite, a 18 year old upper class woman. An example can be seen as the couple arrive at Trinidad. Willy says that “it became more and more obvious-the closer Marguerite and me drew-that the small band of people waiting there were distressed about something. It was obvious by the looks on all they faces” (pg. 173). This creates a situation where Willy must go to great lengths in order to be with the woman he loves. Throughout the book he is often sneaking through corridors, or away from crowds looking for Marguerite so that he can be with her in secrecy. His desire to dwell around in the night can be a direct reflection of his hope to escape the reins of his society. While on one of his prowels, he comes across “the compartment where the most valuable and luxurious articles aboard the ship were stowed. All of these extravagances served to the upper class.” It is here where he sees the opportunity to establish an utopian life with his love where he can live like an upper class passenger without any fear.
Trust can observed at numerous places within the book. On the voyage, numerous people put their faith in Mr. Etzler in hopes that his machine will work. However this sense of trust within Etzler is only a false shell of what it should be. For in the novel the reader is told that the satellite “T’will never work” (pg. 252). It is interesting how out all the people on the boat that met Mr. Etzler, the first one to distrust him was Marguerite. The choice Antoni makes by giving the person who suppose to be the most impaired, actually the one who is the least blind makes the rest of the characters feel less powerful mentally. There is also an indirect trust between Willy’s family. Although it is never stated directly the audience is able to deduce that Willy is trusted with taking care of his family. An example would be when he is going through the luggage of all the wealthy passengers; he intentionally places different food under each person’s pillow in a present-like fashion. When Willy’s dad takes the time to gather everyone and give them each a delicious looking apple, he chooses to ask his family to instead give their apples to people who need it more, like those in the stern. Papee trusts that his family will make the right decision and give up their food. The theme of betrayal is most prevalent in the second half of the book. Mr Etzler, along with Stollmeyer abandon their crew, leaving Willy and the rest of his family to fend for themselves in Trinidad. The way betrayal is displayed in the novel makes it seem as though it is a push back to reality. Characters such as Willy are no longer able to remain in their utopian life, and must be brought back to face life’s obstacles.
Storytelling is a more general theme in the book. At the very beginning we learn that the main character Willy is telling his son the story of his family’s immigration to Trinidad. The passage of knowledge and experiences through these stories are important in order for families to grow as a legacy. If Willy had not told his son about what had happened to his grandpa, or how he had received the watch, a huge part of the son’s life would be left out. The son would grow up with having questions about his own life and would not truly understand his own history. In addition to the passing on of legacy, the theme of storytelling includes important values that every reader should know about. Values such as death, love, and even morality. The aspect of storytelling gives readers the opportunity to realize why they should cherish their own life, and why it is so important to distinguish what is right from what is wrong, even if the line separating the two is unclear.
Language, Structure, and Style
As Flies to Whatless Boys is a novel written in a postmodern style. In particular, the plot draws from elements of microhistory through using small anecdotes and individual experiences to elucidate broader truths about the Trinidadian experience. Being based on a true story, the poetic license serves to further strengthen these stylistic choices.
Also a key part of postmodernist narratives such as this is linguistic experimentation. Antoni’s characters speak in many different voices throughout the novel, but all use creoles and accents developed by Antoni for the express purpose of character development. The linguistic experimentation reminds the reader of the eccentricities of each language and makes them consider the nature of meaning itself.
Originally, readers may think the main narrative is the sole purpose of the book, but as they continue to read, they discover that there is actually more to it. There are numerous plots which end up blending together, making the story more than just a narrative. The first plot is the most general one, being the story that Willy is telling his son about what had happened on his trip to Trinidad. Within this general plot there is a sub-plots which revolve around flashbacks that explain the reason for certain events throughout the story. The flashbacks include Willy recalling his time on the train that he and his family took to see a trail of Etzlers Satellite. The flashbacks go on to explain Willy’s first encounter with Marguerite and the feelings that he experienced when he met her. There is also the plot of Mrs. Ramsol and her chain emails which take place in the present 2000’s. Antoni neglects the use of quotations in this novel, which could probably be attributed to the storytelling aspect of the book. The novel uses materials such as maps, diagrams, and letters to convey certain types of information
In an interview Robert Antoni had this to say about Willy’ language:
Interviewer: I was fascinated by Willy’s language. How did you fashion Willy’s voice, with its particular cadence and creole-like grammar?
RA: That’s the language I grew up with. It’s the language of my grandfather on my mother’s side, who in his last years, lived with us in our home. He was also named William (a popular Tucker name—my own middle name, too). Having said that, Willy’s language is also an invention, a fabrication, including the grammar. It is an attempt to get that spoken language down on the page, in a way that is both readable and convincing—hopefully, even for readers who have never traveled to the West Indies. It’s the most agonizing and enjoyable aspect of my writing. And all of my books, to greater or lesser extent, are written in some form of West Indian vernacular—or vernaculars. It’s what I live for, as a writer anyway.
The title is a direct allusion to a quote from Shakespeare’s King Lear:
“Perhaps the most desperate lines in a desperate play, the Duke of Gloucester's speech culminates scene after scene of abject cruelty and senseless brutality. For the kindness he has shown the disgraced King Lear on a stormy night, Gloucester has been blinded by two of the king's enemies, Lear's daughter Regan and her husband. Gloucester, like Lear, has had to face up to cruel revelations. The son he thought treacherous—Edgar—has proved innocent, but only after Gloucester drove him out. The duke sums up his revelation in two of the most memorable lines in Shakespeare, likening the gods to immature, uncaring, unjust children, and man to insignificant flies, creatures subject to sportful cruelty.” - I will cite the website I found this on down at the bottom...
John Adolphus Etzler was a real person who actually led the Tropical Emigration Society on several missions to the Caribbean. He was a technological utopianist and invented an agricultural machine which he named the Satellite. Etzler believed that the Satellite would lead his Tropical Emigration Society to a glorious utopian nation of ideal socialism under which all citizens would be fundamentally equal and the drudgery of production was consumed by the Satellite.
As Flies to Whatless Boys was published in 2013. The current printing is the first edition.
Critical reception for As Flies to Whatless Boys is minimal but positive when it appears. Shivanee Ramlochan of the Trinidad Guardian said “Indeed, the weight of building a complex history, of imbuing it with both gravitas and levity, cannot be lost on anyone who makes deep inroads into Whatless Boys. Antoni has primed the text to withstand a series of introspections on differing levels, both symbolic and immediate.”
According to the author, As Flies to Whatless Boys has yet to be adapted into a film, but he did record an audio book of the novel.
Footnotes and references: (2 peer reviewed journals, 2 newspaper articles, 2 wiki articles, 2 websites)
Dear Jared, Isaiah, Melanie, and classmates,
To answer these two:
1. There are no planned film adaptations for the novel. I did record an audiobook myself of the novel. It’s available through sudible.com.
2. That’s a BIG question. I wrote Whatless Boys over fifteen years, putting it down at one point to write Carnival, then picking it up again. I spent many years researching Etzler and the Tropical Emigration Society, thinking I wanted to write a historical novel about Etzler. Eventually I realized that, instead, I wanted to tell a small, intimate, family story about the Tuckers. So I basically had to shove all of those years of research off of my desk, and begin to invent, almost from scratch, the story of the Tuckers—because I had only a few details about them. When I realized that Willy Tucker would be my narrator, I had to come up with a Caribbean vernacular for him; and I had to come up with a logical—and hopefully convincing—explanation as to how Willy could be telling the reader his story, in his own language. But, of course, all of that was only the beginning!
In terms of publication history, my agent sent an earlier draft of the novel to a dozen or so mainstream publishers, and they all rejected it—half of them never even responded to my agent. But I had met Johnny Temple, the editor of the small, independent publishing house, Akashic books, who agreed to publish the novel within two weeks of reading it. (I had previously published a short story, based on Miss Ramsol’s emails from Whatless Boys, in anthology that Akashic published called Trinidad Noir.) Johnny and the other editors at Akashic helped me rewrite the novel, and together we completely transformed it. It was the best experience I have ever had working with a publisher. So far as the novel’s website is concerned, I did all of that on my own, but with the help of a few tech-savvy people who know much more about websites and the internet than I do!
To answer your second question first, almost all of the material concerning Etzler and the TES is based on historical fact (my research) while exercising a bit of poetic license. William Sanger Tucker (Willy) did collect and preserve hummingbirds and he did return to England once to lecture about his birds to the Natural History Museum. Willy was also one of the first photographers in Trinidad. His father, also William Sanger, was involved with Etzler's TES and he did write that letter back to Mr Powell describing Etzler's settlement: I discovered that letter in the Morning Star.
To answer your first question, all of the various voices and time lines evolved slowly during the almost 15 years I spent working on the novel. I am always interested in structure and in the vernacular (in various registers), so it's natural (or organic) that those facets eventually inform my writing process and the end product. Last, I had SO much information that I wanted to get into the book, I found I needed the various voices/ registers in order to get it all in!
I hope that helps, and I look forward to our continued conversation!
All my best,