Shes Gone by Kwame Dawes

She’s Gone is Kwame Dawes’ first novel. Dawes, born in Ghana and raised in Jamaica, is distinguished poet in residence at the University of South Carolina, director of the USC Poetry Initiative, executive director of the USC Arts Institute, author of poetry and story collections and plays.

He was lead singer in a reggae band. He has written a study of Bob Marley’s lyrics, a critical examination of reggae music and is editor of a reggae poetry anthology.

Despite all these accomplishments, She’s Gone is an awkward first novel.

Dawes means to examine the rub of black Jamaicans and black Southerners, of men and women, of dependency and love. He tries to shape these interests into a love story between Kofi, a reggae musician born in Ghana and raised in Jamaica, and Keisha, a sex researcher born in South Carolina and based in New York City.

His descriptions of place show off his poetic eye, but the romance is just off. Quickly, the novel becomes oddly self-centered in that Kofi, the main character, is much too tenderly treated, serving as the author’s too-prized surrogate.

The couple meet in Columbia, where Keisha dances to Kofi’s music. We could do without their high-schoolish courtship, the first of five sections:

“She turned on him with a mock serious glare.

“`What is so funny? I am limping and you think it’s funny.’

“`Tae Bo? You mean that kicking thing?’ he sputtered. Then he started to laugh again, leaning against a parking meter. Her look of hurt was too much for him.”

Kofi is on the edge, an edge he knows well, of a nervous breakdown. Keisha has not entirely let go of an abusive boyfriend, despite the advice of wise-woman relatives. They are unhealthy individually and as a couple. Time spent with them has the unpleasant drag of depression.

The strength of She’s Gone exists in the novel’s second section, when Keisha accompanies Kofi to Jamaica:

“She liked the sweat on her body, the way the older women seemed to own the world they lived in, the drama and intensity of the crowds of people, the goats in the street, the madness of the minivan and taxi drivers — the sheer chaos of the place excited her.”

In Jamaica we meet Kofi’s Aunt Josephine. She and Keisha’s cousin, Leonora, who dominates a later section, are the most interesting of the book’s characters. But Aunt Josephine is dying and does so too quickly for the novel’s welfare.

Aunt Josephine listens to martial music because it reminds her of her husband’s lust. She is a sculptor, a rich woman in pearls. She has cancer and is spreading the gospel in self-protection so in the Promised Land she won’t be “some servant to some two-bit uneducated person.”

She reveals Kofi’s secrets — his birth to her half-sister, his depressions, time in an “insane asylum” — in a deal they have made, but assures Keisha he is fascinating “in a pathological kind of way.”

After Aunt Josephine’s funeral, Kofi sits silently on a cement porch, eating oranges, only oranges. Keisha gives up on him and heads to Ocho Rios. There, an assault she interrupts with drunken vomiting leads to her return home.

In the third section Keisha is depressed — and pregnant — in South Carolina. She visits her Aunt Rose, her cousin Leonora, her creepy ex-boyfriend. She dodges communication with Kofi and hits the road.

Kofi is depressed in Spanish Town, Jamaica. He climbs a mountain, talks to a lizard, thinks he can fly, then does so in the conventional way, an airplane to New York City and Keisha’s boss.

Kofi next flies to Columbia and parks himself at Leonora’s, after sweet-talking Keisha’s relatives.

We don’t want Keisha and Kofi back together; they’re a disaster. However, that’s obviously the purpose of the novel’s fourth and fifth sections.

Briefly, Leonora offers a break. She’s a big-handed woman with 2 ½ jobs, a five bedroom house, a mongrel named Blue and Friday nights spent with incense, music and a book. But she and Kofi and their depressions entangle, another downer.

She’s Gone offers intriguing geographic descriptions of South Carolina and Jamaica and interesting moments when Dawes allows Jamaicans their say about Americans. Aunt Josephine says, “That stretch of Caribbean waters between Kingston and Charleston was like a highway. History. But you people don’t know a thing about history.”

Aunt Dorothy, another woman with a hold on Kofi, observes, “These black women from that place come over here like them name Stella, coming to look a island man.” And “Unoo black Americans like to be Africans until the heat come, eh?”

But these are the better moments of the novel; for the most part, we’re stuck with unhealthy people justifying their depression and, in the process, taking us, and the novel, down.