Saturday, November 29, 2014

Winningly full: Harkaway's TIGERMAN

A joy.

Tigerman's hero is straight from Graham Greene (say, The Comedians or The Heart of the Matter): profoundly engaged with his own interior life, posted to a spot on the map that his British mind finds impossible to comprehend, the protagonist can't see himself as a hero, but he has to rise to the occasion for pressing moral reasons. Unlike a Greene character, however, Nick Harkaway's Lester Ferris is a man who must, in these times, act boldly in the physical world. He cannot change things for the better through an ambiguous gesture or by speaking the truth or a lie at a given moment; rather, he must, while also using such diplomatic means to achieve his ends, be what he frequently terms "a sergeant," a man who knows how much force to apply when encountering resistance as well as when to yield to stronger forces.

The less said about the plot, the better, but I'll provide this: on a dying, lawless island off the African coast, Sergeant Ferris's friendship with a wickedly smart young boy drives Ferris to build a counter-narrative to the failing world around him. Harkaway provides vivid depictions of the characters we truly need to know; it's an uncluttered novel because Ferris's world is so interior, unlike the wild island whose recesses and people he has mostly come to know through departures and destruction. The story feels utterly modern—through both the openly darker politics of the post-9/11 world and the internet-and-comic-lingo-savvy boy who shadows Ferris— but remains moored, texturally, in the recent British post-colonial past. Harkaway toys with the responsibilities and behaviors of lost empires, all the while providing proof that there's still room for the kinds of heroic thinking that formed—and malformed—those empires. Indeed, the narrative twines life and death about each other in a hug that is like the hugs that form the novel's central motif: sometimes people reach hesitantly for each other; a few times, a hug is suggested but not given; at key moments, the hug is a desperate grasping after life.

And how long should we hold on to what must pass into oblivion?

Smart and exciting, and featuring that rarity, a third act that pays off in every way, never neglecting the themes it has set in motion, Tigerman is, in its words, deeds, and deeply felt passions, a joy.