Outsider comes of age in Midwest of the 1950s
Dan Zigmond, Friday, June 1, 2007
America is in many ways a nation of outsiders. But Naeem Murr's powerful new novel, "The Perfect Man," takes this to new extremes. Murr brings us the story of Rajiv Travers, a young half-Indian boy growing up in the rural Midwest in the 1950s. Raj was born to an Indian mother - described as "the most beautiful creature you've ever seen in your life" - and an astonishingly irresponsible English father, Gerard. After several unhappy years in London, Raj eventually becomes the ward of Ruth Winters, a writer living in Pisgah, Mo., who had been the companion of Gerard's brother Oliver until Oliver succumbed to his "old demon" and killed himself. She reluctantly agrees to care for her lover's "dark little nephew" for a summer after Oliver's death, but Gerard's family abandons the boy to her indefinitely.
Dan Zigmond is a writer living in Menlo Park and a contributing editor at Tricycle: the Buddhist Review.
If this extraordinary fish-out-of-water tale seems an unlikely conceit for a serious novel, it is. But the initial mechanics are handled quickly and skillfully, taking us all the way to Pisgah in little more than two dozen pages. The remainder of the deeply moving novel is Raj's coming of age as a literal outcaste in this small and desolate American town. And his uncle Oliver's portentous suicide is but one hint of the still darker tragedies yet to come.
Ruth is initially suspicious of this young stranger in her midst but finds him "a nice-looking lad ... alive with guarded looks, the sweetly sly set of his mouth making him seem knowing beyond his years, his slender body jerking and trembling with a twelve-year-old's misfiring energy." He settles in to life in Pisgah surprisingly quickly, despite just about everyone's distrust of his brown complexion. He quickly befriends Annie and Lew, two kids his age who guide Raj through Pisgah's unwritten rules and rituals. Annie is playful and flirty, while Lew is clearly troubled, still scarred by the death of his mother and brother in the years before Raj arrived.
The narration shifts back and forth in time, from 1954 back to 1952, jumping up to 1956, then back to 1952 and so forth. Because these time variations are small, it is sometimes hard to remember exactly where we are in the story, what has already happened and what is yet to come. But, at the same time, this fractured form of storytelling sets up powerful tensions and allows us to experience the full horror of a fateful night in Lew's life in 1952, but only after we have already witnessed the tragic reverberations of this event for so many of the characters in the years to come.
Annie's relationship with Lew eventually blossoms into a romance, complicating her friendship with Raj. Murr captures Annie's ambivalence toward her first love in a characteristically touching passage:
"She pushed her lips against his, but it wasn't like it said in that book: no fire, no quenching. She felt like her soil had gone soft in the rains, even deeply rooted things liable to be torn out with just a breath of wind -- sadness -- and there was nothing she could do."
Ruth, too, comes to appreciate the "clever little boy who had come into her life on the day Oliver had left it." Although the novel belongs to Raj, Annie and Lew, Ruth provides a crucial adult perspective on these tumultuous years, and we see glimpses of both her romance novels and her stream-of-consciousness notes throughout the book. (A subplot involving who did and who didn't steal several of her brutally honest journals adds an intriguing, additional layer to the story.)
The cast of characters gets somewhat unwieldy toward the middle of the novel, and the various members of a sinister band of older men who run the town become somewhat difficult to keep straight. So many tragedies start to pile up - lies, thefts, beatings, molestation, suicide and murder - that we start to feel pummeled into depression. And yet, somehow, the "dark-skinned little boy from England" survives, something Raj himself comes to realize is truly miraculous.
Born and raised in London but having lived most of his adult life in America, the author seems intimately acquainted with the inner world of a consummate outsider like Raj. Murr was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford some years ago, and San Francisco plays a small but significant role in the denouement to this amazing story with an abandoned tract of land there both connecting the adult Raj back to his absent father and providing a safe haven for his own children. Raj and Annie are forever molded by the early experiences they share in Pisgah, reflecting decades later on "the two twelve-year olds they have never ceased to be." Readers of this beautiful and poignant account of an incredible American childhood will not soon forget it either.