May 10-16, 2007
An orphaned half-Indian, half British boy, Rajiv Travers, grows into the titular subject of this sprawling and delicately executed novel by Murr, who crafts a uniquely rich Southern Gothic about Rajiv’s arrival and adjustment into the small river town of Pisgah, Missouri. It being the 1950s in Missouri, Rajiv endures the racial hostility of his peers by remaining quiet yet clever. He speaks at first in imitations, mocking those ignorant enough to mock him, and hides the pain of rejection as he develops into a humorous yet incredibly distant teenager.
But rather than focus on Rajiv, Murr makes a swift Faulknerian move and pans out to examine the rest of Pisgah, shifting the chronology in section to learn what the past has done to shape all of the evil secrets and terrible tragedy that pervade the present. Many of the townsfolk are presented as a single entity, all conscious of each other’s gossip and tension. The main action comes from the child-soulmates Annie and Lewis, Rajiv’s closest friends, whose compassion help pull Rajiv out from his ironic shell. Together they watch horrific family and town secrets slowly reveal themselves, but the author is careful the imbue everyone in Pisgah with a quiet dignity - even those we pity - so the shame of a character is something that resonates greater than the violence surrounding it.
Murr - a Northwestern professor - is British by birth, but clearly knows the South, as well as its literary traditions. There are shades of Robert Penn Warren in his noble populism, balanced by the moral turpitude of Flannery O’Connor, as everyone in Pisgah seems faultlessly flawed. His prose is by turns both wry and good-ol’-boy, muscular during melodrama, yet elegant in the fricasseed anecdotes that create tension among the townsfolk.
Reviewed by Scott Stealey