Review

Mortals
by Norman Rush
(Botswana Country Director 1978–83)
Knopf
May 2003
712 pages
$26.95

Reviewed by Richard Wiley (Korea 1967–69)

AWHILE BACK THE WRITER Robert Stone told me, concerning his ambition as a novelist, “I’m fond of the long ball.” It was before the publication of Damascus Gate, a millennium book that he hoped would soar into the collective political and literary consciousness of America, meteorically.
     Well, I haven’t asked him, but I’d venture to say that Norman Rush might utter the same sentiment in connection with his new and immensely moving novel, Mortals. The long ball. The home run. The book that talks about it all.
     Mortals is set in Botswana, and has as its protagonist (and antagonist, at times) Ray Finch, a CIA operative who is also employed (in order to provide cover) in a local school. Ray is married to Iris, whom he loves thoroughly but with increasing desperation. Iris doesn’t like the CIA, you see, and pressures him, gently but persistently, to get out of it, to get back to his center, to be what he could have been and still might be. Iris and Ray are literate and literary, and they talk that way most of the time, though they also reassure each other of their mutual love and sexual attraction. Ray had hoped to be a poet at a certain moment in his earlier life, and acts very much like a scholar, especially one of Milton, who hangs around the edges of his consciousness like a pendant (the CIA is the albatross) around his neck. Both he and Iris provide us with that same unyielding erudition that we found in Mating, Rush’s prize winning novel of a decade ago.
     Back in the USA, Iris has a dysfunctional sister, and Ray has a gay brother, Rex, from whom he is estranged. Though Iris has never actually met Rex, she has a letter-writing relationship with him. Ray is incensed by his wife’s connection to his brother, and tries, on and off, to point out to her Rex’s mean-spirit and generally irritating mannerisms. “Let me be concrete,” he says at one point. “Here’s what his favorite reply to something you asked him to do was — Nokay. That gives you a hint. Nokay, and he would look at you I guess in order to see whether you thought he’s said yes or no. I guess that was a moment he enjoyed.”
     I’m with Ray on this one. That is, Rush succeeded in turning Rex into someone I didn’t like, either, so when Iris kept pestering Ray to get back in touch with him, I grew somewhat impatient. When Iris’s pregnant sister needs her for a time in America, though, and she disappears from the narrative in order to take that trip, her correspondence with Rex greatly increases, and when she returns to Botswana she brings some 4,000 pages of Rex’s literary machinations. Rex, who is dying of AIDS, wants Ray to read his opus, and, because Iris insists that he owes this to his brother, Ray grudgingly agrees. This manuscript floats through the rest of the book like either a buoy or an anchor, depending on whether or not the manuscript is something you look forward to reading. Ray calls it “A machine to destroy my spare time,” and to my mind, at least, it is.
     In the meantime, however, a lot is going on in Botswana. Two men have arrived in the country, Davis Morel, a black American doctor with a distinctly anti-religious agenda, to whom Iris admits a sexual and intellectual attraction, and Kerekang, a returning citizen whose ambitions toward the good usage of Botswana’s basically unemployed workforce, draws the attention of the CIA. Ray’s CIA boss, a fat and arrogant fellow named Boyle, in fact, wants Ray to tape and trail Kerekang, while Ray’s own interests lean toward the American doctor and Iris’s paramour, Davis Morel.
     For me the story works well enough when Rush’s characters are hanging around Gabarone, moving through embassy parties and lectures and taking walks, and also when Ray and Iris are home having their erudite and sometimes rather distant conversations about marriage, reading, family, God, and life. But the story really takes off when Ray acquiesces to his CIA boss and goes to the north part of the country, ostensibly to look for sites for a new school, but really to see what Kerekang, the dissident, is up to. He and his driver, Keletso, spend time in the bush fighting the roads and intrusions of nature, and being quiet with each other. And that gives Ray (and Rush) a chance to talk to the reader:
     “He realized that he had two central priorities in his activities here. One was to see that Keletso came to no harm. He had to get him out of this. And the other was to see that Strange News (his brother’s manuscript) survived and got back into safe hands . . . . To his shame he was relieved at how minor the sensibility gesturing in Strange News was. It was minor, but it was not nothing, and it was Rex and it was true that certain bits and pieces of Rex’s collation were sticking like burrs in his consciousness . . . . ”
     Well, I’m with him on one of his priorities, getting Keletso safely back, but not the other one. For a while, in fact, I didn’t think his brother’s manuscript belonged in Mortals at all, because I didn’t much like the excerpts from it that we got. They seemed trying and amateurish. But when I discovered the superbly inventive use the manuscript was to be put to in the novel’s latter parts, I was glad it was there.
     After a time when the novel turns to semi-soliloquy — in the bush with Keletso — Ray sends his driver back to Gabarone, and goes on alone, driving the rough roads, until one day he sees a stranger flagging him down. He knows it’s trouble, and it is. He’s soon captured by a group of South African bad guys, lead by a big-chinned Boar. I had a little trouble understanding the specific reasons for the South African’s interest in Ray, until they spotted Rex’s esoteric manuscript in his car and believed it was some kind of coded manual of the CIA. And from then on we were treated to a harrowing interrogation of Ray, who is belligerent and heroic and conniving in turns, and more likeable as a protagonist than he ever was in Gabarone.
     Meanwhile, back in the capital, Iris is going crazy with worry over what has happened to Ray. And who should she send to seek him out, but Davis Morel, her lover. To tell more would be to give the story away, but suffice it to say that Morel is captured by the South Africans, too, and the two men have long and extremely moving and troubling conversations during their imprisonment together. This was my favorite part of the book, bar none. It was its literary and emotional center. At a point where both men needed to find courage within themselves, Morel says to Ray: “All right, I was thinking of someone. I was imagining someone, drawing strength from . . . from the image. It’s something you can do, one can.”
     The image from which he draws strength, of course, is that of Iris, Ray’s wife.
     These sections of the book when the two men are alone together are as moving and as honest as anything I’ve read recently in contemporary fiction, and the up-country story’s denouement contains that tricky use of Rex’s manuscript that I so much enjoyed, but that I’m not going to give away in this review.
     When they go back to Gabarone, what happens? The question of who Iris will choose seems made by the fact that she has taken a lover in the first place. But the way Rush resolves everything is both surprising and in tune with the novel’s underlying intelligence, it’s constant nod toward that which is most out of fashion in American letters these days; the knowledgeable, the intellectual.
     For a novel of such girth, Mortals doesn’t really have very many pivotal or operative characters. Those I’ve mentioned so far, as a matter of fact, hold center stage alone for most of the book. Rather than peopling his work with a plethora of extras, however, a cast of thousands, what’s seems of interest to Rush is to use the characters he does have, in order to delve into religion and literature and the problems created by the west’s nearly uniformly horrendous policies toward the third world. Mortals is a superbly political book, one that weaves within the fabric of its story lessons on what literary art is, how lamely and persistently banal the American (and other) government has been in its dealing with Africa, and how brave and studied attempts to make things better, by the real heroes of the world — guys like Kerekang — can be so easily trampled.
     Reviewers are going to comment on the length of Mortals ad nauseum, I suspect, so I will only say that for me the length of this book (712 pages) fits like a new suit does a fat guy who has just lost a bunch of weight. That is to say, on occasion I felt that some of the heft of Mortals had actually been trimmed back to avoid such criticisms, and heft isn’t always a bad thing. As it is the book reads smoothly. Both its story and its ideas are in the hands of a master.
     Did Norman Rush follow Robert Stone’s prescript and hit a long ball, a home run? Well, let’s just call it a near miss, a solid triple that hits the top of the fence and clears all the bases.

Richard Wiley is the author of five novels, among them the PEN/Faulkner Award winning Soldiers In Hiding, and Ahmed’s Revenge, which won the Peace Corps Writers Maria Thomas Award for fiction.