Peace Corps Writers
Mortalsa review (page 2)
Mortals — a review
page 1
page 2

     Well, I’m with him on one of his priorities, getting Keletso safely back, but not the other one. For a while, in fact, I didn’t think his brother’s manuscript belonged in Mortals at all, because I didn’t much like the excerpts from it that we got. They seemed trying and amateurish. But when I discovered the superbly inventive use the manuscript was to be put to in the novel’s latter parts, I was glad it was there.
     After a time when the novel turns to semi-soliloquy — in the bush with Keletso — Ray sends his driver back to Gabarone, and goes on alone, driving the rough roads, until one day he sees a stranger flagging him down. He knows it’s trouble, and it is. He’s soon captured by a group of South African bad guys, lead by a big-chinned Boar. I had a little trouble understanding the specific reasons for the South African’s interest in Ray, until they spotted Rex’s esoteric manuscript in his car and believed it was some kind of coded manual of the CIA. And from then on we were treated to a harrowing interrogation of Ray, who is belligerent and heroic and conniving in turns, and more likeable as a protagonist than he ever was in Gabarone.
     Meanwhile, back in the capital, Iris is going crazy with worry over what has happened to Ray. And who should she send to seek him out, but Davis Morel, her lover. To tell more would be to give the story away, but suffice it to say that Morel is captured by the South Africans, too, and the two men have long and extremely moving and troubling conversations during their imprisonment together. This was my favorite part of the book, bar none. It was its literary and emotional center. At a point where both men needed to find courage within themselves, Morel says to Ray: “All right, I was thinking of someone. I was imagining someone, drawing strength from . . . from the image. It’s something you can do, one can.”
     The image from which he draws strength, of course, is that of Iris, Ray’s wife.
     These sections of the book when the two men are alone together are as moving and as honest as anything I’ve read recently in contemporary fiction, and the up-country story’s denouement contains that tricky use of Rex’s manuscript that I so much enjoyed, but that I’m not going to give away in this review.
     When they go back to Gabarone, what happens? The question of who Iris will choose seems made by the fact that she has taken a lover in the first place. But the way Rush resolves everything is both surprising and in tune with the novel’s underlying intelligence, it’s constant nod toward that which is most out of fashion in American letters these days; the knowledgeable, the intellectual.
     For a novel of such girth, Mortals doesn’t really have very many pivotal or operative characters. Those I’ve mentioned so far, as a matter of fact, hold center stage alone for most of the book. Rather than peopling his work with a plethora of extras, however, a cast of thousands, what’s seems of interest to Rush is to use the characters he does have, in order to delve into religion and literature and the problems created by the west’s nearly uniformly horrendous policies toward the third world. Mortals is a superbly political book, one that weaves within the fabric of its story lessons on what literary art is, how lamely and persistently banal the American (and other) government has been in its dealing with Africa, and how brave and studied attempts to make things better, by the real heroes of the world — guys like Kerekang — can be so easily trampled.
     Reviewers are going to comment on the length of Mortals ad nauseum, I suspect, so I will only say that for me the length of this book (712 pages) fits like a new suit does a fat guy who has just lost a bunch of weight. That is to say, on occasion I felt that some of the heft of Mortals had actually been trimmed back to avoid such criticisms, and heft isn’t always a bad thing. As it is the book reads smoothly. Both its story and its ideas are in the hands of a master.
     Did Norman Rush follow Robert Stone’s prescript and hit a long ball, a home run? Well, let’s just call it a near miss, a solid triple that hits the top of the fence and clears all the bases.
Richard Wiley is the author of five novels, among them the PEN/Faulkner Award winning Soldiers In Hiding, and Ahmed’s Revenge, which won the Peace Corps Writers Maria Thomas Award for fiction.
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