The greatly anticipated new novel by Norman Rush—whose first novel, Mating, won the National Book Award and was everywhere acclaimed—is his richest work yet. It is at once a political adventure, a social comedy, and a passionate triangle. It is set in the 1990s in Botswana—the African country Rush has indelibly made his own fictional territory.
Mortals chronicles the misadventures of three ex-pat Americans: Ray Finch, a contract CIA agent, operating undercover as an English instructor in a private school, who is setting out on perhaps his most difficult assignment; his beautiful but slightly foolish and disaffected wife, Iris, with whom he is obsessively in love; and Davis Morel, an iconoclastic black holistic physician, who is on a personal mission to “lift the yoke of Christian belief from Africa.”
The passions of these three entangle them with a local populist leader, Samuel Kerekang, whose purposes are grotesquely misconstrued by the CIA, fixated as the agency is on the astonishing collapse of world socialism and the simultaneous, paradoxical triumph of radical black nationalism in South Africa, Botswana’s neighbor. And when a small but violent insurrection erupts in the wild northern part of the country, inspired by Kerekang but stoked by the erotic and political intrigues of the American trio—the outcome is explosive and often explosively funny.
Along the way, there are many pleasures. Letters from Ray’s brilliantly hostile brother and Iris’s woebegone sister provide a running commentary on contemporary life in America. Africa and Africans are powerfully evoked, and the expatriate scene is cheerfully skewered.
Through lives lived ardently in an unforgiving land, Mortals examines with wit and insight the dilemmas of power, religion, rebellion, and contending versions of liberation and love. It is a study of a marriage over time, and a man’s struggle to find his way when his private and public worlds are shifting. It is Norman Rush’s most commanding work.
Surely someone has already pointed out the irony of the surname Rush for a writer who can devote a long paragraph to uneven paving tiles. Mortals—the follow-up to Norman Rush’s National Book Award-winning Mating—is a complex, unhurried tour de force; the beautifully rendered story of the end of a marriage. Ray and Iris Finch are white American expatriates in Botswana. A school principal and Milton scholar, Ray is also a contract agent for the CIA. But Ray’s new boss doesn’t want to see the gorgeous reports into which Finch has channeled all the talent and ambition that might otherwise have gone into poetry. He is asked to submit only his notes. This is clearly a demotion, and it occurs at the same moment that Ray’s adored wife begins to develop feelings for her doctor, a charismatic black American with dangerous political ideas. Like many brilliant novels, Mortals has an Achilles heel. The book is too long by as much as 200 pages. Those pages aren’t without interest, and if—like the author—you find the narrative voice of this novel compelling in itself, you will not mind the lengthy anecdotes, hair-splitting, and digressions that Rush indulges in. Other readers may do a little judicious skimming in the second half of the book and still experience the pleasures of this masterful and psychologically acute novel.
From Publishers Weekly
From the beginning, the tone of Rush’s eagerly awaited new novel is edgy and febrile-a harbinger of the unsettling events that will ensue. Ray Finch, a Milton scholar who teaches in a small secondary school in Botswana during the 1990s, is having an identity crisis. After many years as an undercover CIA agent, he has lost his emotional equilibrium, and he’s strung out with suspicion and fear. Is his adored wife, Iris, on the verge of an affair? What’s with Iris’s warm relationship with the brother Ray despises-gay, witty Rex? How long can Ray suppress his growing disillusionment with the agency’s arrogant and ruthless methods? When Ray’s chief sends him into the interior to hunt down the idealistic leader of a fledgling rebellion, Ray’s fears transmogrify into living nightmares, and the novel, already a textured, erotic portrait of a disintegrating marriage and a society in flux, becomes a political thriller infused with violence. Ray is acutely aware of the cultural dissonance introduced by Western society. According to Iris’s lover, a black American doctor, Christianity has wrecked Africa; the AIDS epidemic threatens another kind of destruction; and idealistic attempts at reform are doomed to failure (the Denoons, from Rush’s prize-winning novel, Mating, show up here, their crusading ardor much diminished). The decadent excesses of rich Americans compared with the disciplined simplicity of life in Botswana add an element of satire. Rush’s attempts to meld political reality with domestic tragicomedy occasionally make the narrative unwieldy, and suspense is sometimes fractured during the action sequences in the desert as Ray’s inner turmoil spins into tortured mental riffs. Still, the richness of Rush’s vision, and its stringent moral clarity, sweep the reader into his brilliantly observed world.