The Novelist’s Event: Fact, Fiction, and a Writer’s Search for a Universal Subject

On November 18, 1978, an event unique in human history took place. In a remote region of Guyana, an elemental, disintegrating country just above the equator in South America, 913 followers of a captivating American preacher named Reverend Jim Jones joined in a mass suicide, drinking poison [or having it injected into them] and lying down quietly to die together. Their ritual followed the assassination of congressman Leo Ryan, a flashy, iconoclastic California Democrat from the suburbs of San Francisco, where Jim Jones had built his church called the People’s Temple (“the Temple”) into a large and powerful force in the mid-1970s. Congressman Ryan is the only congressman in American history to be assassinated.

—from Our Father Who Art in Hell: The Life and Death of Jim Jones by James Reston Jr.

 

So, it seemed, a literary sensibility can be a blessing and a curse. How does a writer protect his sanity if he is drawn to authentic and profound stories of horror, danger, and mystery? If the writer’s imperative is always to enter deeply into his material, to live it, to feel it, to know every aspect of his characters’ personalities, what if the quest is simultaneously soul-withering and paralyzing? What about the virtue of a writer’s distance, the ability to judge objectively? Is it humanly possible to enter deeply and at the same time maintain distance? These are questions that preoccupied me for nearly four years as I tried to understand and explain the confounding Jonestown massacre.

For nearly ten days I spent most of my time in the great, open-air atrium of the Park Hotel in Georgetown, Guyana, listening to the survivors of Jonestown tell their story. They were a bedraggled lot. A few insisted they were resisters to the Reverend Jim Jones’s ministrations. Others knew they were alive only by the accident of life and considered their survival to be misfortune rather than luck: they had untimely business in Georgetown that day—one with a regrettable dentist appointment—and missed out on the big event. The stories of life with “Father” in the jungle were what had drawn me to Guyana. A hundred and fifty miles away at Jonestown—a journey I would take later by boat up the coast from Georgetown and then up the Kaituma River—the FBI proceeded with its janitorial mission. Never would I work so long on the edge of nausea. 

Late in the afternoon I stood on the fringe of reporters surrounding one of Jones’s top aides, Michael Prokes. He had the clean, weak face of Everyman California and spoke with the flat tones of Fresno Valley. He had once been a television newsman before he became Jones’s spokesman. Reporters listened to him, bewildered. I viewed him as the Goebbels of the piece.

He talked about the caring attitude of Jim Jones, the blissful sharing within the loving community, the grand experiment that it had been. I saw the incomprehension in the reporters’ eyes, but also the fear. Some of them, like Peter Arnett of the Associated Press, were old, hard-bitten veterans of guerrilla wars. In some confusing and uncomfortable way this event seemed scarier than war. Newsmen are trained to act like father confessors, but as the only author in the group I was losing my patience.

“But what was Jones like that Saturday morning?” I asked. “Hadn’t he changed? What had so upset him?”

“He was no different,” Prokes answered.

“But hadn’t he exploded over the crisis of Congressman Ryan’s visit?”

“Oh, no, Jim was always at his best in crisis,” he answered.

Nearly a thousand Americans lay poisoned and dead out there in the jungle. I had had enough and lost my temper. “Look, Prokes, more than nine hundred people are dead,” I said sharply, my voice rising in frustration, “and you’re saying there was no crisis that morning.”

He stared blankly at me for a long moment.

“I don’t have to take that,” he snapped, rising from his chair. “I’ve tried to be cooperative. I’ve been answering questions now for six straight days. Look, I’ve got a dead son out there. I don’t have to stand for your browbeating.” He stomped out as the reporters turned on me in fury, still full of a thousand questions.

Four months later, Prokes called another press conference in Modesto, California, where he read a five-page statement full of the same old claptrap: Reverend Jones was Goodness Incarnate; a great government conspiracy had destroyed his utopia. He quoted Patrick Henry. And then Michael Prokes politely excused himself, went to the men’s room, and put a bullet in his brain. 

_____

Before I flew from North Carolina to Guyana the week after the massacre, literary images packed my head. Perhaps my musings were the residue from having laid aside work on a novel that was not going well. Indeed, I was eager for the opportunity. In my head I saw Jones as a real-life Kurtz from Heart of Darkness. If Conrad could only suggest the madness of Kurtz, I would make Jim Jones’s real and palpable. Perhaps it would be possible to chronicle that descent into madness.

When I arrived, the Park Hotel—its spaciousness, its banana fronds fanned by the trade winds, its immaculate, deferential Indian waiters plying me constantly with Banks beer—gave me another start of recognition. It suggested the Hotel Trianon in Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians. I even thought of Mr. Todd in Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust. Waugh, after all, had traveled to Guyana in 1933, finding his inspiration for the last chapter of his novel about “the man who liked Dickens” when the narrator is kept hostage in the jungle and forced to read the novelist’s works to his captor forever.

Several days after my first altercation with Prokes, I was back in the Park Hotel with a Time magazine reporter, with whom I ’d become friendly. On this day, he greeted me ashen-faced, gesturing dramatically for me to follow him through the labyrinthine corridors to his room. There, after a heavily weighted silence, he announced that he was leaving, leaving right away. He advised me to do the same. He knew the full story of Jonestown now, he declared with a nervous gesture, but he would not tell his editors he knew it. He would not write it. He was getting out, getting out fast . . . before . . . before . . . His sentence trailed off in the air. He told me his source was an old, Indian stringer for Time in Georgetown named Paul Persaud, who knew the outer perimeters of the horror. As this man listened to Persaud, he had felt the fear creep from his toes upward through his body. He was too frightened to write the story, but he had given the stringer my name. 

“He will contact you at your hotel in a few days. Frankly, Jim, I advise you not to see him. I would not write this book.” And then he melodramatically pronounced, “It will make you the most celebrated writer in America, and you will die for it.” At this histrionic statement I could only manage a wan smile. I began to take down the name of Paul Persaud, but the reporter stopped me: “Put Persaud’s name on the inside of the pad,” he instructed, “and don’t put my name beside it.” 

I left him, and later I learned he had flown out that night to Barbados, and in one of those high-rise, conical Holiday Inns, in his room on the fourteenth floor looking out on the coral bay, he had pushed all the furniture in the room against the sliding glass doors looking out on the water. 

This mix of death, secrecy, and divine pretensions made the story at once terrifying and irresistible. Should I be worried? Was the story starting to get to me as well? I might have channeled the H. P. Lovecraft maxim: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.”

For days the air had been filled with talk of a Jim Jones hit squad, and the rumors of revenge were always tinged with supernatural intimations: a band of wrathful angels who would swoop down upon the Temple’s enemies—including hostile writers—and deliver Father’s vengeance upon them. If Jones was dead, his phantoms lived on. These phantoms, as much as the provocative visit of Congressman Ryan, had killed his followers. “They’re out there!” Jones would scream at his congregation, “They’re out there every night,” as if zombie-like creatures lurked in the trees and were waiting to sneak into the encampment and slit the throats of his followers. And then he would shake his fist at the tree line: “We’ll kill you if you come in here.” The story worked on the mind. Still, unlike the reporters who were talking to their editors every night, I was all alone. Ironically, my fortress and my solace was literature. Illusory though it was, it gave me staying power. My panic attack would come later.

For several days I waited for a note from the mysterious Mr. Persaud. In the meantime, I made a few inquiries about him. I was told he wrote a lame, pseudonymous humor column, replete with tiresome, off-color nostrums like “The respectable husband never finds pleasure in cheating on his wife. But since he is respectable, who else can he cheat on?” and “No wonder Solomon was the world’s wisest man. He had more than three hundred wives to advise him.” Persaud fancied himself as “the pundit,” I was told, for he wrote occasional puff pieces in a government organ about the strongman of the country, Forbes Burnham, who had succeeded the Marxist-Leninist Cheddi Jagan in 1964. It had been Burnham who invited Rev. Jones to come to Guyana and establish his “paradise” in the jungle. 

As I waited for Persaud’s summons, I made the mistake of reading in my room at the Tower Hotel. Again, it was The Comedians, and my focus was on Greene’s character of Petit Pierre, Papa Doc’s unctuous, depraved emissary who poses as a journalist and is always the bearer of bad news. The mere sight of Petit Pierre frightens the novel’s protagonist. Was Paul Persaud Petit Pierre? I remembered the advice of my doctor back in North Carolina before I left home. As he put down the syringe of gamma globulin that was supposed to combat God knows what and handed me a fistful of pill bottles for dysentery, diarrhea, anxiety, and depression, he said, “Swim frequently. It has a wonderful calming effect on the soul.”

My hotel room opened onto a pool surrounded by palms and bordered by mosaic tile. But as I waited for Persaud’s call, my enthusiasm for swimming was dampened by an image from The Comedians: an intellectual floating face down in a hotel pool. 

_____

Literary references continued to pile on when, four months after my first visit, I returned for a more lengthy stay. Deciding to travel to Jonestown the way Jones’s followers had, I took a slow tramp steamer from Georgetown up the coast to the mouth of the Kaituma River and then upriver, charmed at the sight of scarlet ibises shooting across the bow as they were startled. The journey took two days, and at night the travelers strung their hammocks between iron posts, wary of the vampire bats that can swoop in and suck blood from your toes. In those days I wore aviator sunglasses, and at one point an angry man confronted me, threatening to throw me overboard. Jim Jones’s signature was the same sort of sunglasses, and the man thought I was the villain, who somehow had survived his holocaust or been resurrected.

On that trip I hiked for miles along a jungle path similar to the one Waugh had described, scanning the vegetation for the copper-speckled bushmaster snake—the largest snake in the New World, whose venom kills in minutes—hoping to find material like Waugh’s passage about the magical potions of the jungle: “There is medicine for everything in the forest . . . to make you well and to make you ill. . . . There are plants to cure and to give you fever, to kill you and to send you mad, to keep away snakes, to intoxicate fish, so you can pick them out of the water with your hands like fruit.” D. H. Lawrence was also in my head, especially his character Sommers in the novel Kangaroo, with the followers who long to be carried away, transported into a blissful, insect-like dependence on a God-like leader. 

_____

Yes, I say now: it is possible both to enter deeply and to maintain distance. But it is not easy. I would wallow for eight months in the madness of Jonestown before I was able to achieve a measure of safe and calm remove so I could consider the story just my “current book.” Because this was a nonfiction work, albeit novelistic in character, there was the added difficulty of getting the material I needed to make it a worthy companion to Heart of Darkness. As I had waited for Persaud in that first week in Guyana, the FBI was gathering up eight hundred tape recordings from around Jones’s jungle throne, throwing them in a body bag, shipping them to Washington—and then classifying them as “secret.” They comprised the primary material I needed, for I had ruled out relying on the bizarre and unreliable testimonies of the survivors like Michael Prokes. Conrad had only suggested the heart of darkness; he had not described it. If Jim Jones’s taped “sermons” in the jungle were what I suspected, I could bring alive his gradual descent into madness in the wilderness. But by classifying the tapes, the government seemed to have put that crucial material out of reach. 

Again, I was startled by what I was reading. This time it was a Stephen Spender review of a holocaust book, Nelly Sach’s O the Chimneys. Spender saw the horrors of the twentieth century as a realization of the worst Dostoyevskian fantasies come true: genocide, concentration camps, world wars, mass murder. (Mass suicide was not yet in the litany.) How was the writer to relate his own experience to “the immense circumference of contemporary violence and suffering?” Spender asked. How was he to enter into “the destructive element” of modern life?

“Most writers gaze at the furnace through a fire-protected window in a thick wall,” he wrote. “Necessarily so, because they have to preserve the conditions in which their sensibility can act without being destroyed by it.”

Now I think Spender was wrong. True, most writers view modern horror from a distance, to write about an event quickly and to be first. For the more patient ones, there is no inevitability about being maimed by the experience, though it may be life-changing. My wife would say for years after that writing about Jonestown had changed my personality forever, probably for the worse. Thereafter, I was less patient and had more flashes of anger. Still, I can, at least, say that this nightmare nearly paralyzed me for half a year. My panic attack happened when I got back to Chapel Hill immediately after that first trip and enfolded my eleven-month-old, first-born daughter in my arms—and completely lost it. 

I realized immediately I was in trouble and rushed to the only psychiatrist I knew. In his office I blubbered on for several hours, pouring out the story of going to Jonestown a few days after it had been cleaned up, not seeing the corpses—“only” imagining them—but seeing the detritus of dead babies’ lives strewn in the weeds around the pavilion: toys, discarded nippled bottles, potty lids. As I tried to talk, he had me slowly peel an orange.

Out of this process, a concept of the novelist’s event emerged for me. Such occurrences, which happen rarely in the real world, are often incomprehensible, sometimes horrifying and mysterious. They take time to sort out. They have elements of adventure and intrigue, poetry and terror, and sometimes even romance—with the color of their circumstance as important as the plot, and bit players as interesting as the principals. Such stories as these lend themselves uniquely to the storyteller’s art, and especially to a patient storyteller who combines a fierce quest for the facts with a novelist’s eye. Certain events are beyond the journalist’s craft and beyond the cold distance of the historian. They suggest something important and profound. Bizarre as they may be, they can provide a special window into timeless truth. In treating them properly, sifting the important from the trivial, the novelist’s instincts are on display from the outset in a vision about how to tell the story—not with all the facts, only the critical facts that suggest character and move the plot. By entering into the story utterly, absolutely, thoroughly, the writer comes to know it not just factually but emotionally. Only then can the form be conceptualized—reducing the cast of characters to a comprehensible few, focusing on developing them richly, and choosing and arranging scenes so that the very arrangement will have the rising tension and satisfying climax of a novel.

Jonestown may be one of the greatest novelist’s events of recent history. The main character was no common criminal but a charismatic showman who had built a following of twenty thousand doting members. That showmanship and charisma had to be appreciated and demonstrated before I could treat his villainy and mendacity. If I started with evil, there would be nowhere to go with the story. I had to cover and display the full evil of this character and his method. But before that could happen, I had to solve the quandary of why and how so many people could be taken in and follow this charlatan. His attraction was as important as his evil.

Then there was the story of his followers. Were they insects, as D. H. Lawrence had portrayed his automatons in Kangaroo? Some of them loved Jones, some hated him, some changed from love to hate when they saw him disintegrate in the jungle. Yet out of love or hate—or a combination—almost all followed him into his apocalypse. Was it stupidity or mind control that explains their actions? Or was there simply no escape?

The novelist as historian must go beyond the psychologist as well. The exotic setting of a broken-down country of Guyana, its Papa Doc–like dictator, and the overwhelming jungle straitjacket made the place a perfect laboratory for tyranny—and an ideal place to search for Eden. 

_____

Truman Capote, by calling In Cold Blood a “nonfiction novel,” began a literary trend in the mid-1960s involving the artistic potential of book-length journalism. In a 1972 Esquire magazine essay, “Why They Aren’t Writing the Great American Novel Anymore,” Tom Wolfe argued that the upper class of the literary ranks, the novelists, had abandoned the realm of pure imagination for the reality of a fascinating age—the age itself being superior to anything that could be imagined. The debate continued with Norman Mailer’s book about the anti–Vietnam War march on the Pentagon in October 1967, Armies in the Night, which the author subtitled “History as a Novel, Novel as History.” A decade later, in 1979, Mailer tried a new label with The Executioner’s Song, his book about the capital punishment of Gary Gilmore. That was his “true life novel,” and it contained both real and imagined events. 

As good as these books may be, many complained that the line between fact and fiction was getting too blurry. The issue arose again in 1999 with Edmund Morris’s Dutch, a controversial book about Ronald Reagan for which the author, frustrated in finding the core of his subject’s personality, invented fictional characters in what was supposed to be a definitive biography. In the firestorm of criticism that followed the publication, Morris was asked about what it was like to write about Ronald Reagan and why he crossed the line into fiction. Because, Morris responded, writing about Ronald Reagan was like writing about Chauncey Gardiner, Peter Sellers’s vacuous character from the film version of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1970 novel Being There.

Whatever this genre is called, perhaps the finest exercise of the novelist’s sensibility in factual writing remains John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946). In his estimable career, Hersey would toggle between fiction and nonfiction, and one can only imagine how overwhelming it was for him to witness the wasteland that was Hiroshima in 1946 and then try to express the enormity of the devastation without destroying his own essential humanity. With a simple, compelling conception, Hersey reduced the incomprehensible massacre of sixty-six thousand people and the sixty-nine thousand others injured to six human profiles, dramatizing and personalizing the impact of nuclear holocaust on a few, and thus making the reader think about the totality. The book reads like a novel, even a classic novel. One cares about the characters and comes away with an understanding of an event so central, now as then, to the survival of humanity. 

Wittingly or unwittingly, Hersey applied to Hiroshima a technique that Virginia Woolf had put forward in her essay “The Art of Biography.” Holding up Lytton Strachey’s famous biographies about the Victorians as the ideal, Woolf wrote that great biography does not contain all the facts, only the creative or fertile facts that reveal and nurture character and motive. This concept can be applied to the character of an event as well. The novelist’s instinct will always be to humanize, where the historian’s instinct usually depersonalizes as he looks, clear-eyed, for underlying forces like economic conditions surrounding an event. Hersey’s selectivity gives Hiroshima its success as high art.

Our Father Who Art in Hell represents the second time I embraced this novelistic approach to factual books. My earlier foray was my 1977 book The Innocence of Joan Little. That story is about a young black woman in a small-town jail in eastern North Carolina who was attacked in her cell by a white jailer wielding an ice pick and intent on rape. In the ensuing struggle, Little wrestled the ice pick away from her assailant and killed him. That killing led to a celebrated trial that touched four issues: civil rights, prisoners’ rights, women’s rights, and capital punishment (since she faced the death penalty). The 1970s equivalent of the Scopes trial in Tennessee in the 1920s—a small-town drama that becomes national news—the trial of Joan Little featured a fascinating set of characters, from her brazen, provocative defense lawyer to a skillful jury expert.

How to tell the story? For years I had been intrigued by the concept and the pacing of Wilkie Collins’s marvelous mystery The Moonstone. A tale of a missing gem, the novel races through more than six hundred pages, never slacking in tension, as the journey of the gem is told through the narratives of those who catch glimpses of it along the way, starting with the butler who discovers it missing. “The attempt made here is to trace the influence of character on events,” Collins wrote in the preface to the first edition in 1868. “The character’s course of thought and action under the circumstances which surround them is shown to be sometimes right and sometimes wrong. Right or wrong, their conduct, in either event, equally directs the course of those portions of the story in which they are concerned.”

I thought I could apply that same concept to Joan Little’s story, starting with the sheriff, Red Davis, who comes in the next morning to find his jailer dead and his prisoner escaped. From there I made a different character in the drama the central figure of each succeeding chapter and had them narrate their chapters from their own perspective and bias—Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon brought to life in an eastern North Carolina town. Taken together, the effect I sought would be threefold: to show the difficulty that passion and prejudice present to objective truth; to render the tale with a comprehensible set of characters; and to turn the readers into “superjurors,” judging for themselves the innocence or guilt of Joan Little. Innocence would be treated ironically, for Joan Little was scarcely innocent in the wider use of that term. I subtitled the book “A Southern Mystery,” suggesting both its factual accuracy and its novelistic quality, but defining it neither as a novel nor as nonfiction. 

_____

When the Jonestown massacre happened, I understood its potential instantly. Here was the ultimate novelist’s event. I had gone to Guyana the next week, but it wasn’t until fourteen months later, after a furious campaign and with the intercession of then Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, that I got access to those eight hundred hours of tapes. They were beyond belief, the moral equivalent of Hitler’s ravings in his bunker, the howl of barbarism in the jungle. They validated Joseph Conrad and went beyond him. I listened for months in a cubicle at the FBI, trying to keep myself alert for those creative or fertile interchanges that contained the universal. It was a difficult, mind-numbing job. There was so much repetition, so much demagoguery, so much tormenting of his followers. But beneath it all lay the most perfectly constructed tyranny of a perfect sample of a thousand people in isolation. 

When I finished listening, I felt dissatisfied with the words I had committed to paper, for they could not completely capture the power of Jones’s voice in the jungle. The voice had to be heard as well as read. And so I went to the offices of National Public Radio. Months later, the network broadcast its radio documentary Father Cares: The Last of Jonestown, that culled the many hours of tapes down to ninety minutes. At the end of the broadcast, NPR added the sound of ocean waves crashing on a beach to calm the audience down. The program swept the broadcast awards in 1983 and won the Prix Italia. 

Still unable to let the story go—understanding the event had become an obsession—I followed the book and the NPR program with a play, Jonestown Express, that premiered in 1984 at the Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island. The final thing to be done was to imagine the last night in Jonestown and speculate through a few survivors on the question of resistance versus acquiescence. The theater was the best place to examine that elusive, unknowable quandary.

_____

In that first trip to Guyana, I waited three days for a summons from Paul Persaud that never came. Finally, in frustration, I dug into my scrawled notes for the address that frightened Time magazine reporter had given me. Number 100 Carmichael Street, I saw, was not far from the Tower Hotel, and so I set out, walking down Church Street past the wooden Anglican cathedral of St. George’s, until I turned onto Carmichael Street, where I found a well-maintained white two-story house behind a high wall. Its distinctive feature was its green Demerara shutters, which angle downward to block the common torrential rains while they still permit muggy air to circulate. As I approached the house, I could hear the distant sound of a radio newscast. As I lifted the latch at the gate, a high-pitched voice called out my name.

“Come in, Jim, I’ve been expecting you.”

Uncertainly, I peered through low windows, trying to locate the source.

“Here in the basement,” the voice said.

In a dank but bright office, smelling of old newspaper and Indian incense, I encountered a diminutive figure with squirrely eyes and a mop of curly hair plopped on the top of his head, as if his barber had placed a bowl on it and razored closely from ear to ear. From his narrow East Indian face, he peered at me through pincer glasses with a lively, amused look, as if he regarded me as his next victim. With a thick pen in hand, he was seated behind an English table strewn with papers that were filled with lines of orotund script. A white shirt hung like a sheet about his upper body, and I guessed that he weighed no more than a hundred pounds. With a dramatic gesture he invited me to sit as his long, narrow fingers pushed back unruly strands from his eyes.

“There’s been a car crash in the Corentyne today, and eight East Indians were killed,” he announced languidly. “The Indian press will want to know about that. But I’m a lazy reporter. I’ll file it tomorrow, perhaps, when the weather is supposed to be a bit cooler.”

I started to introduce myself, then realized it was unnecessary.

I stammered the name of my contact from Time.

“Yes, it’s too bad about him,” Persaud said with mock concern, patronizingly. “He’s a nice boy. But if you’re going to be in this business, you’ve got to accept the occupational hazards.”

Unsure whether that was a warning or a threat, I knew nothing else to do but present my bona fides. I was an author, not a newsman, I said, and wouldn’t publish for another two years. I wasn’t trying to scoop anyone. At my authorial pretentions, he was unimpressed. 

“Yes, V. S. Naipaul drops by from time to time and leaves his books,” he responded. “But I have not read them.”

With so many unanswered questions, I hardly knew where to begin. If he really knew what was behind this tragedy, he should have told all of it to me. And yet it was possible I didn’t want to know the full story after what I had learned: to know it was dangerous. I started with a specific. How was I to understand that a half million dollars in crisp notes was found in Jonestown?

“Don’t ask me any direct questions, chief,” he quipped.

He proceeded with riddles and rhetorical questions, implying the most delicious secret knowledge, and then, once the bait was dangled, yanking it away and refusing to elaborate. At one point he asked how it could be that a community of Americans was there dealing with the Russians, spouting socialist rhetoric, without the FBI and CIA infiltrating the place.

“Well, did the CIA infiltrate Jonestown?” I asked.

“No direct questions, please,” he snapped, then softened as if he sensed he was losing me. “Jim Jones may have been a rat and a Communist, but he was no fool. He made complete asses out of everyone he met. He did what the entire U.S. government could not do: he succeeded in breaking up the Guyana-U.S.S.R. friendship.” 

I was confused. Why would either the U.S. or U.S.S.R. care much about a relationship with this god-forsaken place? I would learn the answer later: in 1953, when Guyana was a British colony, Winston Churchill had removed the Communist leader Cheddi Jagan from power, fearing that Guyana would give Soviet Russia a Communist toehold in Latin America.

Gradually, it dawned on me why this old man had been able to terrify a professional journalist into leaving the country. Persaud had not told the full story of Jonestown at all, but merely suggested the shadow of the horror. In the shadowy conspiratorialist’s paradise that was Guyana, Persaud was accustomed to operating on the underside of things. He was playing out Conrad’s game in real life. To terrorize was not to tell all, but to suggest all sparingly, leaving ample room for the play of imagination. That had been Jim Jones’s genius as well. He was frightening because he seemed to know everything and control everything. He knew it was essential to maintain the illusion of omnipotence.

After a time, Persaud’s game became tiresome and I was eager to leave, but I needed to know what he knew if I was really going to proceed with this book. The historian in me was competing with the novelist: I wanted to treat history as a novel, more than write a novel as history, because I am a shifter of fact. But I was getting nowhere. He sensed my frustration, and once again he suddenly seemed afraid that he would lose my interest.

“Look, chief,” Persaud said, “Michael Prokes and a few other survivors came to my house a few days ago and told me the whole story for five hours. I will write about it someday. But not now. Perhaps later. I promise that when I write it, I will make only two copies of the manuscript and give one to you.” I thanked him and left. Of course, I never got anything from him. 

I saw him several more times before I left the country. Once, I attended a diplomatic party and spied him in a corner talking in hushed tones to the Brazilian ambassador. When I approached them, their interchange abruptly stopped. “Don’t ask me about Jones’s stay in Brazil in 1962–63, chief,” he whispered to me afterwards.

_____

A year and a half later, as I was listening to tapes at the FBI headquarters and sifting through hundreds of documents, I came upon a memorandum to Jones that arrested my attention. Dated 19 May 1978, six months before the end, it was a report from an aide on a meeting with “the pundit.” The report revealed vintage Persaud again, full of bad humor and innuendo, suggestions of inside information, fatherly advice, contradictions, cynicism, and even a bit of grace:

He [Persaud] says he has a reputation for being a drunk because he makes offhanded humorous remarks and shakes his head while he talks. “There’s a fine line between character and reputation,” he said, “but anyone who has a reputation for being progressive is going to make enemies, and we are simply the victims of human behavior.” He wondered if JJ ever comes to town, because he would like to meet him. But he didn’t seem interested in going to Jonestown. “That’s for young people,” he said.

I made an offhand comment about the CIA, and Persaud said the Prime Minister asked him once how he could be sure that Persaud himself wasn’t CIA, since he worked as a stringer for Time. “Well, chief,” Persaud said he answered, “journalists and Prime Ministers are always the prime suspects, aren’t they?” The Prime Minister simply smiled.

The environment of Guyana had suited Jim Jones perfectly. Who was to know if any of this was true and accurate? Where did the truth lie in any of it? Nevertheless, even if Persaud was only a bit player in the larger Jonestown story, he became an important character in my nonfiction novel.

 

James Reston Jr.—novelist, nonfiction writer, and playwright—has published eighteen books and written for publications such as the New York Times, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, National Geographic, and Esquire, has been a fellow at the American Academy in Rome, a fellow at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. His most recent book is A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory, and the Fight for a Vietnam Memorial (Arcade Publishing, 2017).