Gay Columbia professor loses his bearings—and heart—when he travels to Tunisia for a conference.
When hyper-literate archaeology lecturer Maurice Burke arrives in Sousse, Tunisia, he is filled with disdain for the tacky tourist culture and economic avarice of the locals. His opinion begins to change around the time he meets Nidhal, an impoverished youth he first spies playing in the ocean. Nidhal claims to be 15, looks younger, and can neither speak nor hear. The two strike up a fairly innocent friendship, Maurice taking the sweet-natured Nidhal swimming and buying him ice cream. Seeing bruises on the boy’s skinny body, Maurice grows increasingly concerned that some older boys are bullying Nidhal, who does not go to school. Hoping to do something to help the boy, he approaches a charismatic local Muslim scholar who knows Nidhal, and finds himself both drawn to and repelled by an exotic culture he does not understand. Is Nidhal involved with some kind of fundamentalist movement? Could he possibly take on guardianship of the young Tunisian? The smitten scholar then extends his stay and struggles with his conflicted feelings for Nidhal, which seem to combine paternal regard and contained lust. Meanwhile, Maurice satisfies his baser urges with a local hustler, while fielding calls from his increasingly needy (and HIV-positive) partner Eddie back in New York. He also must contend with the hysteria of his close friend Henri, who, familiar with the hypnotic allure of North Africa, wants to jet from Paris to Sousse for some kind of intervention with his increasingly wayward friend—if he’s not too late. Geraci (Marrying Tom, 2001, etc.) has created a believable (if occasionally pretentious) hero in the well-meaning intellectual Maurice. He does not fare as well with the plot.
Evocative Mediterranean atmosphere, but the love story is a bit of snooze, and the author merely touches on the religious and political complexities of that part of the world.