Doing for 1950s small-town America what The Last Picture Show did in film, Naeem Murr's engrossing second novel The Perfect Man seems also to be shot in a grim black-and-white. His Pisgah, Missouri, is no American Graffiti carnival of high-jinks and ice-cream sodas, but a gritty, backbiting town full of ignorance, failed dreams and nasty secrets.
Rajiv Travers is the issue of a brief, ill-considered marriage between an Englishman and an Indian mother he never knows. Dumped first on an uncle's family in London aged five, at 12, this elusive boy, already uncertain of his cultural identity, is pushed off on yet another uncle in tiny Pisgah, who has died by the time Raj arrives. Thus the boy is marooned with his uncle's paramour of only two years, a smart but grudging woman named Ruth who has never wanted children, much less a half-grown half-breed with only the most tentative connection to her life. Raj does not belong in Pisgah, as the rest of the town is more than eager to let him know.
Yet early on the novel takes a turn, plunging into a story far more complex than one of a bewildered immigrant outcast trying to make a place for himself in the suspicious, bigoted world of small-town middle America. Raj's friend Lew has been put away in a mental institution, witness to an autistic brother's death. When Lew emerges from a spate of Freudianism run amok, the boy has been brain-washed into believing that he himself was his brother's murderer. Well adjusted when committed, on the other side of these benevolent treatments the kid is actively crazy.
Many other plot strands weave a dense fabric. An Asian raised in London, Naeem Murr moved to the US in 1987, where he has clearly immersed himself not only in his adoptive land, but in its culture more than three decades before his arrival. In Pisgah, he has created a fully fledged, self-contained world, with a vast array of characters, each quixotic and authentically flawed. The self-righteous local preacher is obsessed with body-building and spends hours striking poses in the mirror. Ruth writes romance novels that idealise her neighbours, whom in reality she despises. Two Russian immigrant sisters are so cheap that they require a full-time guard at parties lest they upend all the platters of food into bags to spirit back home. A father is so obsessed with glimpsing his adolescent daughter's naked body that he cuts off the cold-water supply while she's in the shower, that she might scream for his help after being scalded. You sure can't fault this author for stereotypes.
The story is punctuated by era-specific twists - not only the standard out-of-wedlock pregnancy, but a teenage girl's radiation treatments for acne, which will later give her cancer. Pisgah's racism is the old-fashioned sort: flagrant and unashamed. Yet Raj is not the only victim of the town's rancour; through incest, rape, beatings and character assassination, Pisgah's native residents generously victimise one another. Given the litany of catastrophe and brutality throughout the book, you'd never imagine that the author could pull off a happy ending.
Like most good novels The Perfect Man succeeds because it's so impeccably well written. Murr's characterisations are often elegantly succinct: “She was the kind of person you forgot was in the room.” Yet more elaborate constructions also sing: “One former boyfriend, whenever she entered a room of people, would exclaim, 'Ah, the main course has arrived.' And her face would be devoured, one of the few consistently emptied plates in the great potluck of society. What was she now? Ruth smiled. No longer the fried chicken; she was the raw broccoli and mayonnaise salad, the mysterious fish dip. She could bring her face home untouched each time, and freeze it for the next gathering.”
Straight out of a Better Homes and Gardens of 1954, even those dishes are just right.
This review first appeared in The Financial Times.
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