Powerful dynamics and a dark secret in "The Perfect Man"
By Wingate Packard
Special to The Seattle Times
"The Perfect Man" by Naeem Murr
Random House, 451 pp., $13.95
The freedom of unsupervised childhood jostles with the claustrophobia of small-town life in Naeem Murr's brilliant third novel, "The Perfect Man." The British-born Murr, who has lived his adult life in the U.S., brings to life a large cast of characters and a country tableau across which longtime friendships are played out.
Set in Pisgah, Mo., in the 1950s, the novel opens with the arrival in town of young Rajiv Travers, a mixed-race child. He has been taken from his mother in India, rejected by his British relatives and sent to America at age 12 to live with another British uncle. That uncle died on the day Raj arrives, and so Ruth, the woman he lived with, is confronted with taking in the unloved boy.
Raj's friendships with the exuberant Annie, the first child he meets, and Lew, her troubled best friend, are the warp and woof of this powerful story. Raj displays an uncanny gift for mimicry and wit, emptying himself out to become pleasing to others. How he develops his own identity is an understated but central concern of the book.
The theme of friendship is developed on parallel tracks leading to sunny places and to very dark ones. On the one hand, you read of the children who play in the woods and along the Missouri River bluffs, walking on dusty country roads with a sense of time and freedom perhaps not known to American children today.
On the other hand, you see a knot of men from their town who meet at night to drink, hunt and bet and participate in a circle of cruelty and abject subservience that is fascinating for its relentless pattern of predation on the weak.
At the heart of the novel is a terrible secret about an event that occurred two years before Raj's arrival. This secret drives the plot as Lew, the child most affected, and his friends mature. The children live in the world shaped by the secret for which those men are responsible. As they come of age, the children's friendships and loves converge with the men's acceptance of bullying, and smash the old secret open.
Ruth supports herself by writing torrid romance novels, and she stands out as an oasis of reason to the children, even though she is suspect in her much-discussed singleness - and in her decision to raise Raj - by the adult townspeople.
Murr's characters display depth and humor, ancient European hostilities and surprising naiveté. His depictions of madness and singeing loneliness are spare. And he has a gift for capturing character in outrageously turned metaphors.
This is the best novel I have read in many years, captivating for its beautifully crafted prose, its haunting dynamics and the author's complex evocation of a place and time through organic storytelling.
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