Over the past decade, someone neglected to tell Norman Rush about the sorry state of American letters. In an environment where novelists are encouraged to put out product every two to three years, Rush is an archaically deliberate writer. For the past 20 years, this former antiquarian book dealer has meditated on the dusty African country of Botswana, a place so remote that headlines about the region rarely make it before page 20 of even the worldliest newspapers.
None of this typical American ignorance seems to have impeded Rush. If anything, it seems to inspire him to even mightier feats of literary craftsmanship, as his latest novel, Mortals, impressively attests. Weighing in at 715 small-print pages, the book features several maps, a glossary, enough plot lines that this reviewer had to map them out on a separate notepad, and a dazzling array of intermingling thematic movements. As in Rush's previous novel, Mating, winner of the 1991 National Book Award, Mortals takes place in Botswana, where Rush lived for five years in the late '70s as country co-director of the Peace Corps. This time around, it's not development but the AIDS epidemic that is sending the country teetering toward a full-blown crisis. It is 1991, and the collapse of communism is sending ripples through the Third World. Narrator Ray Finch is a CIA operative working undercover as a private-school teacher whose specialty is Milton and his Paradise Lost.
It's a fitting pairing, as Ray is feeling like he's lost a bit of paradise himself. With the Cold War over, he has been bumped from freelance intelligence gathering to a rather low-rung assignment investigating the relatively harmless populist leader Samuel Kerekang. At the same time, Ray's wife of 17 years, Iris, with whom he is utterly besotted, develops a powerful attraction to a black American missionary and holistic-medicine guru named Davis Morel--whom Ray believes to be much more dangerous than Kerekang.
Rush's melding of political and emotional plot points will be familiar to readers of Mating, the tale of an American woman in Botswana who falls for a charismatic American anthropologist. But where Mating was a novel of courtship--between a man and a woman, between the West and Africa--Mortals is a novel about marriage, and as one might expect, it's got a distinctly darker and less rapturous flavor than its predecessor.
To begin with, Ray is a bitter and anxious hero. Like the covert intelligence agency that employs him, Ray is grasping after things--a job, a wife--things he's had purchase on for so long he's only now begun to realize he doesn't deserve them. Snippets of Milton filter into his head during the day like hallucinations. Although love is always just beneath the surface with him, there's something more violent and explosive a little deeper. You sense his kindnesses cost him dearly.
With all this tension building, it's not surprising when Mortals takes on the shape and tenor of an old-fashioned spy novel. Like the old hero with an unfaithful wife, it's up to Ray to take matters into his own hands, prove wrong his disbelieving bosses, and win back the girl in the process. After Ray is sent to the Kalahari Desert in pursuit of Kerekang, he backs his way into a brutal uprising staged by an alliance of Boer and Namibian forces that the CIA wants to repress.
The reader comes across some hiccups in how Rush goes about scripting this triangulation between Kerekang, Morel, and Ray. As in Mating, there is something a touch obvious and overstated about the political beliefs in play here. With its slow development and long periods of silence, the novel occasionally feels like a global political chess game that the author is playing for our instruction and benefit.
In the end, though, a patient reader will be justly rewarded for persisting to the explosive climax that rips this novel's civilized veneer wide open. Not only does it dramatize every horrible lesson that has come out of the West's involvement with Africa--the impossibility of graphing Western ideas onto African politics, the dangerous half-life of leftover colonialism--but it also concludes Ray's appropriately grave evolution. He has gone from a man who takes orders to a man who effects change, and in the process, he learns that the instincts of mortals are base, indeed.