Peace Corps Writers
Review
   
Mortals
by Norman Rush
(Botswana Country Director 1978–83)
Knopf
May 2003
712 pages
$26.95
(Buy this book)

Read
Talking with Norm Rush
from our March 2001 issue

Mortals
  Reviewed by Richard Wiley (Korea 1967–69)
 
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AWHILE BACK THE WRITER Robert Stone told me, concerning his ambition as a novelist, “I’m fond of the long ball.” It was before the publication of Damascus Gate, a millennium book that he hoped would soar into the collective political and literary consciousness of America, meteorically.
     Well, I haven’t asked him, but I’d venture to say that Norman Rush might utter the same sentiment in connection with his new and immensely moving novel, Mortals. The long ball. The home run. The book that talks about it all.
Mating      Mortals is set in Botswana, and has as its protagonist (and antagonist, at times) Ray Finch, a CIA operative who is also employed (in order to provide cover) in a local school. Ray is married to Iris, whom he loves thoroughly but with increasing desperation. Iris doesn’t like the CIA, you see, and pressures him, gently but persistently, to get out of it, to get back to his center, to be what he could have been and still might be. Iris and Ray are literate and literary, and they talk that way most of the time, though they also reassure each other of their mutual love and sexual attraction. Ray had hoped to be a poet at a certain moment in his earlier life, and acts very much like a scholar, especially one of Milton, who hangs around the edges of his consciousness like a pendant (the CIA is the albatross) around his neck. Both he and Iris provide us with that same unyielding erudition that we found in Mating, Rush’s prize winning novel of a decade ago.
        Back in the USA, Iris has a dysfunctional sister, and Ray has a gay brother, Rex, from whom he is estranged. Though Iris has never actually met Rex, she has a letter-writing relationship with him. Ray is incensed by his wife’s connection to his brother, and tries, on and off, to point out to her Rex’s mean-spirit and generally irritating mannerisms. “Let me be concrete,” he says at one point. “Here’s what his favorite reply to something you asked him to do was — Nokay. That gives you a hint. Nokay, and he would look at you I guess in order to see whether you thought he’s said yes or no. I guess that was a moment he enjoyed.”
     I’m with Ray on this one. That is, Rush succeeded in turning Rex into someone I didn’t like, either, so when Iris kept pestering Ray to get back in touch with him, I grew somewhat impatient. When Iris’s pregnant sister needs her for a time in America, though, and she disappears from the narrative in order to take that trip, her correspondence with Rex greatly increases, and when she returns to Botswana she brings some 4,000 pages of Rex’s literary machinations. Rex, who is dying of AIDS, wants Ray to read his opus, and, because Iris insists that he owes this to his brother, Ray grudgingly agrees. This manuscript floats through the rest of the book like either a buoy or an anchor, depending on whether or not the manuscript is something you look forward to reading. Ray calls it “A machine to destroy my spare time,” and to my mind, at least, it is.
     In the meantime, however, a lot is going on in Botswana. Two men have arrived in the country, Davis Morel, a black American doctor with a distinctly anti-religious agenda, to whom Iris admits a sexual and intellectual attraction, and Kerekang, a returning citizen whose ambitions toward the good usage of Botswana’s basically unemployed workforce, draws the attention of the CIA. Ray’s CIA boss, a fat and arrogant fellow named Boyle, in fact, wants Ray to tape and trail Kerekang, while Ray’s own interests lean toward the American doctor and Iris’s paramour, Davis Morel.
     For me the story works well enough when Rush’s characters are hanging around Gabarone, moving through embassy parties and lectures and taking walks, and also when Ray and Iris are home having their erudite and sometimes rather distant conversations about marriage, reading, family, God, and life. But the story really takes off when Ray acquiesces to his CIA boss and goes to the north part of the country, ostensibly to look for sites for a new school, but really to see what Kerekang, the dissident, is up to. He and his driver, Keletso, spend time in the bush fighting the roads and intrusions of nature, and being quiet with each other. And that gives Ray (and Rush) a chance to talk to the reader:
     “He realized that he had two central priorities in his activities here. One was to see that Keletso came to no harm. He had to get him out of this. And the other was to see that Strange News (his brother’s manuscript) survived and got back into safe hands . . . . To his shame he was relieved at how minor the sensibility gesturing in Strange News was. It was minor, but it was not nothing, and it was Rex and it was true that certain bits and pieces of Rex’s collation were sticking like burrs in his consciousness . . . . ”
 
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