The collision of the “humanitarian” West with emergent Africa is relentlessly analyzed in this long-awaited second novel from Rush (stories: Whites, 1986; the NBA–winning Mating, 1991).
Rush spent several years in Botswana as a Peace Corps administrator, and his commanding theme is the mystery of Africa as experienced by strangers bent on civilizing it. One such is protagonist Ray Finch, a middle-aged English teacher and covert CIA operative enlisted to write “Lives” of suspicious persons. Ray leads a seemingly idyllic life in the Botswanan town of Gamborene with his beautiful wife Iris, interrupted only by her correspondence with his misfit homosexual brother Rex, a manipulative pseudointellectual who, in Ray’s opinion, “sees himself as . . . the gay Mencken.” More serious complications arise when Ray is reluctant to compile information about British-educated engineer and social reformer Samuel Kerekang (whom the Agency considers dangerous), instead investigating another recent arrival in Gamborene: black American holistic healer Davis Morel, an agnostic and pragmatist determined “to lift the yoke of Christianity from the neck of Africa.” This enormously ambitious tale scorns to summarize or telescope: Rex’s inane effusions and Morel’s criticisms of scripture, for example, are reproduced at exhaustive length—as are Iris and Ray’s (sexy and charming) romantic and sexual banterings. Everything changes irrevocably when Ray is sent northward, through the Kalahari Desert, to observe a violent rebellion by a coalition of Boer and Namibian forces, suffers an imprisonment and unexpected proof of his suspicions about Morel, and ironically becomes at last the man whom he has pretended all along to be. Mortals isn’t easy going, but Rush’s authoritative grasp of his subject, rich characterizations, and complex handling of issues of sexual and political fidelity, morality, and mortality make it a reading experience not to be missed.
Another National Book Award seems a distinct possibility.