Review of The Perfect Man: Times Literary Supplement

Coming of age in Pisgah

          Many years ago, William Golding's Lord of the Flies would keep me awake at night with its tale of how easily a perfectly civilized group of English schoolboys could, in the circumstances of the jungle, descend into barbarism. The dark places of the soul, Golding suggests, are not far under the surface; only the constraints of society have to be removed. But where Golding needed to take his schoolboys away to a desert island in order to unleash the demons that stalk the hidden crevices of the soul, Naeem Murr does it with accomplished ease in Pisgah, a small town in Missouri, a beautiful place, with "blue chicory along the dusty country roads, lightning bugs over fields of white daisies, humming-birds in the honey-suckle vines". In other words, life can happen anywhere: good and evil, love and hatred, desire and deception can hang around any nondescript comer, and any stray glance may signal the fatal ambush.
          Murr chooses a young boy called Rajiv Travers, his half-Indian name and his dark skin eternal reminders that he is born of an abandoned Indian mother, to take the reader to Pisgah in the 1950s, "in a flood year, by the night train, on tracks raised by men then called Negroes out in the darkness". Rajiv's arrival in that small town is a deliberate telescoping of the wide world beyond, its distant limits marked by India, where he was born, by England, where he was left by his father with an uncle and a most unwilling aunt, and by Australia, where his father now is looking for more adventures. On the night of his arrival, Rajiv's second uncle, to whom he is now being tossed, commits suicide. The woman with whom the uncle was living, enigmatic Ruth, a tireless writer of old-fashioned romances, in a strange decision agrees to keep Rajiv with her.
          The boy's gentle humour begins to earn him friends, overriding, for the most part and more easily than would have seemed possible, the difference in skin colour, and finally a childhood begins to take root in this new place.
          At one level, The Perfect Man is a very competent coming-of-age novel, exploring friendship, love, heartbreak and the chilling dawn of adult wisdom in Rajiv and his group of friends. But it is also a book about arrival and departures, about developing roots in a place, particularly as an outsider. Rajiv, condemned by his skin to "feel outside of things", kills a wounded bird because he wants to stay on in Pisgah. And he succeeds, because "there are only two ways to tie yourself to a place: fall in love or commit a crime; assimilate or violate". In Pisgah there will be no shortage of love, nor any dearth of crime.
          Through the friendships that the boy makes, Murr skilfully opens up the worlds hidden in that small town, the secrets - embarrassing, shameful, or dark - buried in each family. There is the world of Lew, the farmer's child, born to roam the woods and bathe in streams, his beautiful innocence forever haunted by the mysterious death, on a bluff over the Missouri River, of his autistic brother. Annie of the dirty yellow socks, who is half in love with Rajiv and half with Lew, struggles bravely to look after her Italian immigrant father's weaknesses, her mother's infidelities and the destructive impact of both on her brother. Nora, the acne-afflicted busty blonde girl from a Dutch immigrant family, discovers and then fights the incestuous advances of her father and his visceral hatred for Rajiv's dark skin. Alvin is the cowardly, lying son of the town preacher, an egotistical man who thinks nothing of revealing the secrets of his marriage in front of his congregation and his wife, who finally finds her steel. And there is Ruth herself, a cerebral presence content with her dog, Fifty-Three, because he adores her "and eats leftovers", observing the townspeople in unsparing detail and noting it all in the journals that will then feed her romances. Disaster is inevitable when these journals fall into the hands of Alvin, who is smarting under the neglect of the other children and haunted by the suicide of a loner, a man remembered only for winning the slow bicycle race three years in a row at a county fair: "How could you kill yourself in the sunlight? How could you get so lonely and crazy?".
          These and other stories interweave in patterns of light and darkness, good and evil, as the Missouri ("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") flows past. And the mosaic that emerges is grimly rich - the killers, the incestuous, the crazy, the anti-Semites, the adulterers, all inhabit this town, which is described by Annie, in a letter to Rajiv away at university, as

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. Blind and blind and blind: people who have blinded themselves to survive. This is madness - which I know too well - the terrible all-seeing of self-inflicted blindness.

          It is a very mortal world that Murr creates, and then, as if to retain the frailty of his characters, he zealously maintains the gap between men and gods. If that chasm were ever to be bridged, then "what separated men from Gods, that membrane more fragile, more lovely, more sacred than ever, would vanish and break. Dreamless, we would all go mad".
          Murr's prose, always bordering on the dark, has an evocative quality that energizes The Perfect Man. His vivid language lends a magical sheen to what would otherwise be merely gross and vile, describing the drunks and gamblers gathering in the night, chasing with dogs, stripping aside domestic veils, beating the son of one of their own to near-death, throwing a body "like a dead rat" into the river far below. Their fury is "deep and real, like a fire in a vein of coal, burning underground for generations"; a girl's face resembles "a gathering storm, her eyebrows dense and dark"; a certain quality is "sunshine caught in the shell of a cicada". And Pisgah itself is the place where "people's souls have been out or buried too deep within them. That's why there is so much water here, so many swift streams to stop the ghosts from crossing".
          Rajiv is an attractive character. Armed with a "delicately responsive face" and a mixture of Indian and English qualities of subtlety, cleverness, humour and perception, he ducks and swerves through the storm of inevitable racial insults - monkey, nigger, black bastard, Gunga, shit-wallah. One wonders, however, why Murr chose to make him half-Indian. There is virtually nothing else in the book - story, people, smells, colours - that resonates with anything Indian. The only memory Rajiv seems to have about India is that somebody there once gave him water from a wooden bowl; the other references are exaggerated stories about human sacrifices, elephants and buffalo dung that he makes up to amuse his friends or confound his tormentors. India remains only a very dim and distant idea, and England, Rajiv's halfway house, is an England of Ascot hats, a metaphor for elegance. So why make him half-Indian? Is it because Murr, who was born in England and has lived in the United States since 1987, wanted to make this a different kind of immigrant story (Pisgah after all has Dutch, Italian and Russian immigrants)? The Perfect Man is very different from the immigrant novels currently being written at a great rate by Indian and Pakistani writers, in the UK and the USA, whose fiction is fuelled by immigrant suffering, the intrinsic contradictions of a home abroad, the clash of values between immigrant parents and children, and so on. Or did Murr want an immigrant who could make it to MIT from Pisgah, and then on to a successful professional life in San Francisco, with hardly any mention of school? (These are the 1950s and early 60s, before the days of Information Technology and the success of the Indian professional abroad.) Could it be that Murr simply wanted a dark skin, but not dark enough to be classified as American Black? Rajiv is just dark enough to set the inhabitants of a small town in the American Midwest on edge, their suspicions aroused, their condemnation handy, their acceptance hidden in a tight fist.
          In the end, The Perfect Man is not an Indian or an immigrant novel; it is a very American novel, influenced by William Faulkner. It succeeds in recreating an entire world with a full spectrum of human emotions in a small Missouri town, as Faulkner did in the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi. Faulkner, in his famous Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950, urged the young writer in a post-war world, to leave

no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse.

          It is only such writing, based on a universality of emotions, that can transcend language and nation and be handed over to another generation.
          Naeem Murr has taken Faulkner's lesson to heart, and that is why it does not matter whether the story is told in Pisgah or in New York: the story of growing up, loving, losing, hating and yearning is the same everywhere; against this story, the rest of the world fades away. When all is said and done, Rajiv himself "understands only too well how little all the suffering in the world can come to mean when you love someone you cannot have".

Navtej Sarna, Times Literary Supplement, April 7, 2006