Awarded four stars out of four
Mesmerized by a Missouri Mimic
Here’s a novel that takes its time befitting a story set in the backwoods of 1950s Mirrouri, The Perfect Man unfolds with almost indifferent slowness, allowing its emotional tension to build imperceptibly. Carefully paced with memorable incidents and brilliant flashes of poetic description, the nevertheless muted tone of the book’s slow burn makes the unremitting cataclysm, when it arrives all the more shocking. Inevitably, but with an unexpected range of fall-out, Murr reveals a small-town legacy of brutality, passion and vulnerability that lingers in the mind like an obsession.
That is the impression of hindsight. For three-quarters of this book, however, Murr raises more questions than he answers. He opens with the dilemma of three English brothers who find themselves responsible for fathering a half-Indian boy, Raj. None of them is adequate to the task, and they soon disappear from Raj’s life - indeed from most of the novel. Instead, Raj ends up in the care of Ruth, an American writer of romantic novels. Together they live in the small town of Pisgah, where few people know how to react to a black boy who isn’t African-American. It’s a curious sequence of chapters, at once quite separate from most of the story, but having the effect of abandoning Raj as if on a desert island.
He is accepted and loved by Annie, an independent girl with a deeply reflective mind to match Raj’s own, and by Lew, beautiful and disturbed, living with the blame for the murder of his younger brother. Their intertwining stories form the core of the novel, but Murr introduces us to a whole group of children growing up together. With only occasional indications of their ages and the lightest of period touches, for much of the book they are difficult to distinguish, one from the other. The effect, though, is to evoke a childhood past without a clear timeline; children maturing virtually without our noticing. It’s all spookily real.
What feels more awkward is that Murr gives the children an articulate way of expressing their emotions that sits uneasily with their relative youth. They spend much of the book catching up with their own observations about themselves. But catch up they do, each and every adult fate unforgivingly consistent with what we’ve learned about them as children.
Raj himself emerges as one of the most likeable creations of recent fiction. A self-deprecating, versatile mimic (echoes here of Murr’s first novel, The Boy), Raj instinctively delivers a witty response, a form of self-protection undoubtedly, but one run through with slivers of self-knowledge and a foil to Lew’s mental deterioration. He and Annie together form a bond of fragile beauty in a malicious community, a love born of pity and desire. It’s hard to think of writing more heart-breaking than the letters they send to each other as they face their love and Lew’s final breakdown.
But The Perfect Man is no simple coming-of-age novel. In giving as much weight to the adults of Pisgah as to its children, Murr establishes a community where “nothing lay between loving and killing.” Without exception, the men are flawed, abusive and manipulative. Only in Ruth’s cliché-ridden fiction are there any ideal males. In Pisgah, fathers prey on their daughters, the vain preacher is held in contempt by family and community, and - fatally - drinking buddies place malicious bets on each other’s behaviour.
The gradual revelation of their past crimes and the emotional damage inflicted on their women folk is soul destroying. As their revealed past makes the present darker, only the mesmerizing sureness with which Murr analyses human frailty permits the book’s flashes of hope to become brighter and more visible.
(The Glasgow Herald (25 March 2006) by Laurence Wareing)