By MARK KAMINE, Published: June 10, 2007
The Perfect Man is a New York Times Book Review “Editors’ Choice” selection for June 17th
In Naeem Murr’s first two novels, set in London and its environs, social workers administered to demonic child prostitutes and bardic welfare cheats while tackling their own severe personal problems. In The Perfect Man, his third novel, Murr, who was born and raised in London and now lives in the United States, brings his slightly gothic sensibility to bear on the heart of America. The book takes place chiefly in Pisgah, Mo., the small town where Rajiv Travers, a half-Indian, half-English boy, comes of age in the 1950s. This “Our Town”-ish locale is an ideal showcase for Murr’s impressive talents, previously deployed on a widely divergent cast of British characters. Here, Murr weaves an elaborate plot, shifting perspective between small-town characters - adults, outcasts and the handful of teenagers who form the novel’s core.
Mark Kamine works in the film business and line-produced Steve Buscemi’s forthcoming “Interview.”
After an English childhood fraught with the Old World’s habitual racism, Raj is abandoned by his parents and sent to live with a romance writer in Pisgah. With dark skin and a defensively comic intelligence, Raj faces racism in America as relentless as any in England. He also finds friends. Annie, independent-minded enough to adopt him instantly into her gang, is aware that her own parents’ Catholicism marks them as different. Nora, big-boned and blond, loves Raj even though her father “would kill her - or kill him” if he knew.
Another friend, Lew Tivot, having witnessed his younger brother’s murder, has since been hounded to madness by the machinations of townsmen eager to keep the story quiet and by the incompetence of a psychiatrist more comfortable with jargon and theories than with the patients he treats. Murr’s earlier novels featured convincing depictions of aberrant mental states, and in “The Perfect Man” he meticulously traces the workings - and warping - of Lew’s mind. Early on, Lew is able to state simply what he’s seen happen to his brother: “Sal threw him in the river.” By the novel’s end, he’s in the throes of insanity: “They left me for dead, but I put my pieces together. I took my windpipe and I threaded on my organs. I’m a breathing brain, like storm clouds.”
Pisgah’s mixed population includes a pair of Russian immigrant sisters, a German car salesman, a self-righteous minister and the embittered romance novelist who takes Raj in. Murr, a bracingly straightforward writer whose flourishes are rare and subtle (a too-thin schoolteacher has “pale freckled skin sealed to her bones”), dexterously advances multiple story lines, overlapping them now and then with rich results. Scurrilous journals kept by the romance writer initially seem a source of grief only for Raj but have wider repercussions after they are stolen, parsed and sent as letters to the targets of the novelist’s private grievances, precipitating in one case the discovery by the minister’s wife of her husband’s irredeemable insensitivity and her son’s criminality.
All the principal characters live uneasy lives in Pisgah, and each story gives rise to excruciating scenes of confrontation, revelation and, in at least one case, reconciliation. Murr’s handling of period detail is adept; he doesn’t beat us over the head with research. A couple living together out of wedlock is beyond comprehension for one character. Another is teased for his interest in the “topless Hottentots” in National Geographic.
Murr captures adolescence with insightful directness. Annie not only notices Nora’s developing body, she notices the boys noticing it as well, and realizes she’s changing too. When Lew and Annie become a couple, their initial physical explorations have an apt tentativeness. “They had started to touch but didn’t know how far they wanted to go. They kissed with their eyes open, questioning.” Impulsive teenage actions lead to a misbegotten engagement for Raj and brutal retribution taken on Annie’s brother. Murr occasionally uses Raj’s sense of humor to unmask the ignorance behind people’s prejudices, as when he persuades a crowd of wedding guests to repeat the toast “fresh dung” by claiming its derivation from an Indian wedding blessing.
“The Perfect Man” builds not only toward self-understanding for its youthful heroes but also toward an outlandish climactic confrontation that is, literally, a cliffhanger. That kind of high drama in combination with the occasionally violent incidents that precede it, engineered by starkly evil adult characters, push what is essentially a coming-of-age story toward melodrama. As in his earlier novels, Murr laces his intensely character-driven narrative with horror-story elements. Imagine the result if Jonathan Coe’s bildungsroman, “The Rotters’ Club,” had been jazzed up by Patrick McGrath, with his affection for the overheated extremes of passion. To say Murr could do without the lurid trappings may be beside the point: a bit of hair-raising suspense has never been much of a reason to put a novel down. Well-wrought characters and refreshingly clear prose are sufficient reasons to pick this one up.