Part One of the novel is set on December 2, 1976. Bam-Bam is 14, the son of a “whore” and “the last good man in the ghetto.” He hears on the radio that there is a surge of crime and violence sweeping over Jamaica, but he knows that all he can do in the Eight Lanes, the ghetto where he lives, is “see and wait.” He’d like to get out of the ghetto, but every time he comes close it feels like the whole world is a ghetto. Two men bring guns to the ghetto and teach Bam-Bam how to use them.
Within the first few pages of the novel, the phrase “see and wait” has been repeated twice. In this passage, the phrase helps to give a sense of the seemingly unending nature of the ghetto. Just as any hope of leaving the ghetto is dashed by the feeling that the whole world is a ghetto, so too is there no hope of life in the ghetto ever changing.
For Bam-Bam, life in the ghetto is defined by chaos and violence. People rape and kill for minor, irrational reasons: to steal money or food, or simply because a man gave the wrong kind of look or a woman was wearing the latest fashion. Boys who look like Bam-Bam are frequently harassed by police officers, who Bam-Bam refers to as “Babylon.” He notes that getting killed or beaten by the police is a normal occurrence.
The fact that people kill others in order to steal money and food establishes a clear connection between the pervasive violence and extreme poverty that characterize life in the ghetto. However, note that the violence does not always originate with the oppressed population living in the ghetto; it is also instigated by the police.
In 1971, the Singer first appeared on TV. That same year, Bam-Bam shot a gun for the first time, at the age of 10. Back then, Bam-Bam’s father ran home one day from his job at the factory and told Bam-Bam that they were going to play a game where you had to crouch on the floor. Bam-Bam stood up, at which point a shower of bullets erupted outside.
Because of the inescapability of violence in the Eight Lanes, Bam-Bam was never able to have a period of innocence in childhood. His father’s attempt to turn dodging bullets into a “game” shows the doomed desperation with which he attempts to give his son a normal, innocent childhood.
Two days later, Bam-Bam’s father beats up his mother and rapes her with a broomstick. Bam-Bam thinks he would never see his mother again, but the next day she returns with four men. Bam-Bam hides and watches while one of the men, Funnyboy, forces Bam-Bam’s father to give him oral sex at gunpoint before killing him. Funnyboy then shoots Bam-Bam’s mother, whose body falls on top of her son. The men leave, and Bam-Bam pulls the Clarks off his father’s feet, vomits at the sight of his father’s face, and runs.
Bam-Bam’s mother’s decision to call in local men to punish her husband suggests that people in the Eight Lanes do not rely on police and the courts, but rather turn to the vigilante justice of gangs. Note Funnyboy’s act of male-on-male sexual assault. The connection between homosexuality, homophobia, and violence will be important throughout the novel.
Bam-Bam makes it all the way to Copenhagen City, where he runs into Papa-Lo and his men. They know that Bam-Bam has come from the Eight Lanes, but they let him join them, giving him a gun on his 12th birthday and nicknaming him “Bam-Bam.” Another man called Josey Wales teaches Bam-Bam how to shoot.
Copenhagen City is a rival ghetto to the Eight Lanes, and Papa-Lo’s decision to accept Bam-Bam may thus appear as a kind gesture of mercy. However, the fact that the men give Bam-Bam a gun suggest that they are perhaps more interested in using him than protecting him.