Heart and mind

Someone neglected to tell Norman Rush about the sorry state of American letters in the last decade. In an environment in which novelists are encouraged to put out a product every two to three years, Rush is an archaically deliberate writer. For the past 20 years, he has meditated on the dusty African country of Botswana, a place so remote that headlines about the region rarely make it beyond page 20 of even the worldliest newspapers.

None of this typical American ignorance seems to have to impeded Rush. If anything, it seems to inspire 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, this time just as the AIDS epidemic is teetering toward a full-blown crisis. As we begin, it is 1991, and the collapse of communism is sending ripples throughout the Third World. Narrator Ray Finch is a CIA operative working undercover as a private-school teacher whose specialty is John Milton, the poet of Paradise Lost.

It’s a fitting pairing; Ray is feeling like he’s lost a bit of paradise himself. With the Cold War over, he’s 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 whereas Mating was a novel of courtship—between the West and Africa, between a man and a woman—Mortals is a novel about marriage, and, as one might expect, it has 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 nation, a wife—that could do without him. 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.

With all this tension building up, it’s not surprising when Mortals evolves into 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 and prove wrong his disbelieving bosses, while winning the girl back in the process. So, 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.

Although there are some hiccups in how Rush goes about scripting this rebellion, a patient reader will be justly rewarded for persisting to the explosive climax that rips this novel’s civilized veneer wide open. In this fashion, Mortals concludes what has become a loose trilogy of sorts about this small African nation. The journey began in 1986 with Rush’s debut collection, Whites. Mating chronicled the debacle of good intentions. Mortals shows that even when man is armed with good intentions, well, he’s only mortal.