The small town of Pisgah, MO in the mid 1950’s might be the last place for a half-Indian, half-Brit to be left behind in, but that’s exactly the fate that Rajiv Travers faces, when he is just about 12. The product of a hasty union between an Indian mother he has never seen, and an English father who has moved on to the next catch in Australia, young Rajiv is dumped in Pisgah because an uncle has been found living there and could possibly become the boy’s guardian. As luck would have it, his uncle passes away and uncle’s girlfriend, Ruth, is left in tenuous charge of the "half-breed."
Raj’s dark skin immediately qualifies him as an outsider among some of the town’s children but quite a few of them--including Annie and Lew, become his closest companions through the years, as they spend what looks like a typical American childhood climbing trees and splashing in local streams. The Missouri rages around them, a “brown, broad river, its surface as grained and knotted as bark. A vast, gnarled, liquid tree set in the earth. Dead wood, holocaust, naked, agony of limbs piled against the banks.”
Turns out the raging river is an apt metaphor for the small town it flows by, where practically every family has some dark, deep secret of its own. “Sometimes Pisgah seems the place where people’s souls have been cut or buried too deep inside them. That’s why there is so much water here, so many swift streams to stop the ghosts from crossing,” Murr writes. There’s adolescent Nora who has to overcome her father’s bizarre sexual advances, and the town preacher who spends hours toning his muscles at his weights machine. Alcoholism runs rampant. Then there is Lew who has been convinced he is responsible for the death of his autistic younger brother Roh. All this provides more than enough material for Ruth, Raj’s guardian, who pens vicious material about the townspeople in her private journals and uses some of it to write cheap “ten-cent” romances.
The town, especially the men, function as a single living organism with the laws of the jungle (survival of the fittest) still very much in place here. Together they function as a mob committing the most violent of acts with chilling nonchalance. Murr, who has always had a penchant for dark overtones in his writing, continues this style in The Perfect Man. Sometimes even the most common of descriptions are tinged with a touch of bizarre as in here: “She had started to have dreams about zits and blackheads so huge she had to prise them out of her skin with a teaspoon, until they covered the surface of her vanity like little black and white coins.”
At its heart, The Perfect Man is a coming-of-age novel, of Raj, Nora, Annie, Lew, Alvin, and other friends, a couple of whom will meet harsh fates. Often, as Raj later remembers, Pisgah seems “the unreal place, the place at the heart of things, where there is no fake eccentricity instead of real madness, where, it seems to me, everything is trapped somehow, and has to struggle just not to become grotesque.” Despite these overwhelming odds, the children overcome teen crushes, play the cards they have been dealt, and forge a hesitant future.
The Perfect Man is a beautiful story, hauntingly told. Even if at times, it seems as if there can be no end to the misery dished out, the ultimate message is one of redemption. For his part Raj, despite the innumerable racial slurs hurled at him (shitwallah, Gunga and worse) comes across an immensely likeable, easy-going young man. It’s no wonder practically every eligible woman (including Annie and Nora) in town, is in love with him. With his easy humor and dreamy eyes, he offers a ready escape from Pisgah’s everyday horrors. Rajiv Travers is the perfect man. The book made it to the Man Booker long list last year. Proof enough that thankfully, Naeem Murr’s vivid and heart-wrenching The Perfect Man is infinitely better than the “ten-cent romances” that Ruth generates.
Reviewed by Poornima Apte, April 18, 2007