An eerie, dreamlike atmosphere pervades this novel of struggle and oppression.
Olshan divides the novel into three parts and moves backward chronologically, so the second part is set 21 years before the first and the third, 11 years before the second. This narrative strategy makes events and characters somewhat clearer the more readers progress into the story, though the ambience remains decidedly murky. At the center is Gus, a physician who, at the beginning of the novel, has been released from prison, a broken man after years in his cell. He wanders aimlessly to a park and to a mall in a nameless city and then is picked up by a museum worker who takes him home, sees that he gets medical care and provides a change of clothes. Shortly thereafter, he finds himself at a clinic treating “marshmen,” social pariahs who inhabit all three sections of the novel. The role of the marshmen is essentially to serve as “the other,” objects of hatred persecuted by the military establishment. The museum worker who takes Gus in turns out to be Thali, daughter of the Magheed, a local potentate who had befriended Gus earlier. Part two shifts to Gus’ point of view, and readers learn there of his relationship to Betty, a “tent girl” who, for a while, stayed with Gus while he was working as a surgeon at a field hospital. Readers also meet the arrogant and ruthless Gen. Curtis, who’s determined to wipe up the marshmen’s habitat by creating levees and hence changing the prevailing ecosystem. In the final section, readers meet the earlier versions of both Gus and Curtis, now merely a major, and also get acquainted with the early stages of the relationship among Gus, Thali and her father, the Magheed.
Strange, otherworldly and somewhat sinister.