Peace Corps Writers

Two Years in Kingston Town

Two Years in Kingston Town:
     A Peace Corps Memoir
by Jeff Koob (Jamaica 1991–93)
Writer’s Showcase, $19.95
An imprint of iUniverse, Inc.
359 pages
February, 2002

Two Years in Kingston Town
  Reviewed by Bonnie Lee Black
     (Gabon 1996–98)

FOR BETTER OR WORSE, Peace Corps memoirs tend to have a predictable time-orderPrinter friendly version coherence, with which every RPCV can readily relate: I applied — I trained — I was posted — I was (culturally) shocked — I taught — I explored — I listened — I (slowly) adapted — I was humbled — I learned. This one, Two Years In Kingston Town: A Peace Corps Memoir, by Jeff Koob, is no exception to this basic, time-honored formula. But this book goes further. It relates the author’s Peace Corps experience in minute detail, almost day by day.
     Jeff, a psychologist from South Carolina, and his wife, Maria, a psychiatric nurse, joined the Peace Corps as newlyweds in their forties and served together as Health volunteers in Jamaica from 1991 to 1993. They were both assigned to work at the University Hospital of the West Indies, on the outskirts of Kingston. Maria was an instructor of psychiatric nursing and Jeff, a counselor and group leader in the hospital’s newly established detox/rehab ward, the only such program in Jamaica.
     This memoir focuses on Jeff’s obviously carefully documented observations and experiences. Maria is often in the picture, but generally very much in the background. We see her, sometimes, but dimly. She seldom speaks. Frequently, she goes to bed early, leaving Jeff free, presumably, to get caught up on his journal writing. He’d packed, along with “a fat Swiss Army knife,” he says, “several blank books to write in” when they’d left for training. He must have filled all of them, and then some.
     When Jeff writes of his work at the detox ward, he shines. Working in substance abuse is difficult under the best of circumstances, and the circumstances Jeff had to deal with there were far from the best. His contribution, as he describes it in vivid scenes and long passages of true-to-life (was he wearing a hidden recording device?) dialogue, is commendable. Anyone working in this field would appreciate his rich account of the challenges he faced as ward psychologist.
     When he and Maria were not working at their respective, demanding (and often frustrating) jobs, the couple took every opportunity to explore Jamaica’s beauty and enjoy the island’s colorful carnivals and reggae concerts. They went snorkeling, birding, turtle-watching, touring, dancing, partying. Again, Jeff paints vivid word pictures of every outing for the reader, such as:

One of the first sights we saw, approaching Port Antonio on the north coast, was a white, European-looking palace, bright in the tropic sun, incongruous amid the tall coconut palms. It had been built, we learned, by a German contessa. The town itself curves around the shore of a crescent bay, one of the prettiest on the island.

     And he records the sound, too, by capturing the Jamaican patois to a tee (and even includes a glossary). On the way to one outing, for example, Jeff and Maria charged toward the door of a bus along with the crowd, and Jeff managed to get on. He tells us —

I nearly panicked as the bus pulled out, not knowing if Maria had made it.
     “Did the white lady get on board?” I called out, “Maria!?”
     “Nah wohrry, mon,” someone near the door called back.
     “She ahn de bos.”

Jeff Koob writes well, but too much. How many readers, one wonders — other than those members of the Koobs’ inner circle of friends and relatives — would likely be interested in every minute detail of their daily existence in Jamaica?
     Two Years In Kingston Town is a self-published book, and, like others of this genre, has an unfinished quality. The reader wishes there had been a copyeditor at the end, to catch the last-minute typos and misspellings throughout. More importantly, one wishes there had been an objective, dispassionate manuscript editor at work earlier on in the process, to bridge the gap between the author’s need to tell all and the reader’s need to remain engaged.
     We really don’t want to know everything the couple did, every move they made, every meal they ate, every opinion about the “most obnoxious” PCV of the lot. We don’t want to read three pages about their ordeal reclaiming their lost luggage at the Air Jamaica baggage office. An able editor would have spared us.
     At the end, Jeff summarizes what he gained from this two-year experience. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, he says, he learned confidence, patience, humility, flexibility, and persistence.
     As a writer, though, Jeff Koob may still need to learn that Less is More.

Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996–98), an honors graduate of Columbia University's writing program and author of the nonfiction book, Somewhere Child (Viking Press, 1981), was a writer and editor in New York City for 20 years. She now lives in northern New Mexico and teaches Essay Writing at UNM-Taos.
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