Skip to main content

Devil Makes Three


Devil Makes Three

The main character in DEVIL MAKES THREE is the country of Haiti. I am leading off with this observation not because it’s all that obvious but because it took me a long time to figure it out. Yes, there are actual human characters in the novel, specifically Matt Amaker, an American diver and amateur treasure hunter whose experiences form the backbone of the story.

Matt’s character arc is as choppy as the Caribbean on a windy day. There’s a lot of back-and-forth and intertwining with other characters, and it looks for a while like Matt’s story is going nowhere and that he’s lost his agency. It’s not what the reader might expect out of your basic character arc.

"DEVIL MAKES THREE is an absorbing, compelling story of an embattled island nation that is always endangered but improbably makes its way."

But that’s only a weakness if you take the view that Matt (or anyone else) is the main character. That designation belongs to Haiti, and if you want a character arc that looks a bit more like a rollercoaster than anything else, this is where you go. Haiti has it all: an exploitation colony transformed by a bloody slave revolt, a dictatorial rule toppled by a public uprising that was in turn throttled by a military coup. Ben Fountain gives us a small slice of Haitian history, but it’s a history that is colorful mostly because of how blood-soaked it is.

It would be dismissive to say that DEVIL MAKES THREE is a travelogue; it’s much more than that, but travel certainly is an element. Fountain is an excellent writer and an even better observer as he takes readers from the charming coastal villages to the gritty downtowns to the desperately strapped clinics, from the grand villas of the best families to the decadent yachts of the new Haitian leadership. And he doesn’t blink or flinch at the essential Haitian poverty, or the brutal force employed by the various warlords.

In 2021, following a devastating earthquake, a PBS reporter interviewed Jean Montès, a Haitian musician and conductor living in New Orleans. “It is unbelievable what is happening in Haiti,” he said. “It’s impossible to believe such despair and succession of tragedies can be happening to one people.” The book doesn’t cover any natural disasters, but it looks backward to Haiti’s eventful and troubled history. This is a country that the United States occupied from 1915 to 1934, with frequent interventions and embargoes in the succeeding years.

The reaction of most of the characters to Haiti’s past and current crises is not one of detachment but one of helplessness. In the later stages of the novel, Matt describes himself as a jellyfish, essentially bodiless and tossed this way and that by the tides. In terms of character development, his lack of agency (and it’s not just him) means that he’s being dragged around for no real purpose. But his lack of agency is its own purpose. Despite his best efforts to build a business, employ Haitians and bring capital into the country, he is thrust into a succession of dangerous and absurd situations. There’s not a good response to that other than helplessness, which is shared by the American CIA agent who is constantly undermined by internal violence, as well as Matt’s primary love interest, a Brown Ph.D. candidate who toils in the literal underbelly of the Haitian health care system.

It would be wrong, though, to dismiss this book as Caribbean disaster porn. Fountain (who wrote the masterful BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK) is a fine prose stylist and a deft interpreter of human nature, both pragmatic and profane. DEVIL MAKES THREE is an absorbing, compelling story of an embattled island nation that is always endangered but improbably makes its way.

Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on October 28, 2023

Devil Makes Three
by Ben Fountain

  • Publication Date: September 26, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250776511
  • ISBN-13: 9781250776518