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Tayt HarlinGalgut's style echoes Hemingway's in its lack of adornment and Coetzee's in its quiet menace
—The New York Times
In this bleak and thrilling novel, the fifth from Booker Prize-nominee Galgut, the author creates an antipastoral, postapartheid noir that centers around Adam Napier, a depressed poet who retreats to a rural South African town to write. Rather than write, Adam drinks and wallows in depression. The story accelerates once he meets Canning, a former schoolmate who regards Adam as a personal hero even though Adam cannot remember him. As it turns out, Canning is a wealthy businessman with a vendetta against his dead father: he plans to transform an idyllic game preserve his father owned into a golf course. While Canning facilitates business between corrupt politicians and shady businessmen, Adam sinks deeper into a moral quagmire and continues to fail as a poet. At the heart of this tightly wound novel is a story of betrayal-within an individual, among friends and neighbors and within a society. With Adam, Galgut has created a transcendent loser, a contemporary cousin to Bellow's magnificent Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day. (Jan.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Adam Napier is one of the casualties of the new order: a white man let go from his job to make way for a black man, satisfying the revised racial quotas. Left unsaid, of course, is that in the previous regime the entire country lived under the most brutal kind of racial quota -- all for one, none for the other. Adam knows that he isn't supposed to take it personally and that the disintegration of his life is part and parcel of larger political forces, but, as he asks himself, ?How could it not be personal??
After losing his job, Adam takes advantage of a dormant property in South Africa's countryside, owned by his brother, to make a change in his life. He published a volume of poetry when he was young (a sly autobiographical nod to Galgut's precocious debut at the age of 17) and now decides, having been washed up by the shifting political waters, to have another go at it. Soon after arriving he runs into an old prep school classmate, Canning, who retains an effusive fondness for him, despite the fact that Adam doesn't remember this other man at all. He sinks this secret out of sight, like a package in a lake, and plays along with Canning's reminiscences about their shared boyhood. The man's obvious neediness and the emotional coloring of his overtures irritate Adam even as they ingratiate Canning to him. And it does no harm that Canning's wife, Baby, a beautiful and strong-willed black woman, soon takes Adam to bed.
The Impostor has much in common with Galgut's previous effort, The Good Doctor, including the improbable attraction of a beautiful -- and black-skinned -- stranger for an otherwise unremarkable white man. Both books concern male friendship in a rural setting, contain a phlegmatic and self-centered protagonist, and inhabit the parched promises of a reborn South Africa. The earlier novel received a great deal of praise upon its publication, in 2003, and was ultimately shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Yet The Impostor is an even stronger work. Galgut has renewed his central novelistic interests, and the plotting here is even more sure-handed, its political and moral themes fitted squarely to a chassis of genre parts.
Canning, who serves as the foil in The Impostor, is also a more compelling figure than Laurence Waters, his counterpart in The Good Doctor. He has a hustler's volubility and shadowy energy, coming on at times like a Gatsby of the veldt, and it is no surprise when he turns out to have big money and big plans. At the core of his mysterious work is the redevelopment of his late father's game preserve. As Adam flits in and out of Canning's world, he bumps into a host of local players and even becomes involved briefly, when he unwittingly delivers a bribe to the town's mayor. He is an outsider even as he shoulders a weight of guilt for what he believes to be his role in the story's gathering darkness. He's a man mismatched with his environment.
Galgut's prose, however, is wonderfully matched to his subject: tough and nervy and hard-edged. His descriptions, especially of the natural world, often startle with a grim beauty, as when a sunset oozes through the sky in ?a spectacular arterial sewage of color.? The book's first half runs up a moody, volatile atmosphere, including a merrily gothic scene in which Adam, making a tour in the gloaming of Canning's game preserve, discovers its one remaining lion, circling like a shark in the dry basin of a drained swimming pool. He watches as workers throw in a bloody animal carcass. The image quite vividly suggests the hidden carnivorousness of the world Adam has only begun to explore, but one is tempted to paraphrase Chekhov: if you introduce a bored, hungry lion in the second act, it really ought to be swallowing a human body, preferably a still-living one, by the third.
By restricting the scope of the action, as he did in The Good Doctor, Galgut achieves a more incisive and engaging portrait of his country's moral renovation than a fatter -- a ?panoramic? -- novel might have done. He wastes hardly a breath as he peels back the optimism to show that apartheid's end was, like anything else, a business opportunity. Each of the characters wears a rather heavy symbolic clothing, but the symbolism snaps into place with a brisk, satisfying logic, and early moments echo like falling boulders within the late scenes. The finale delivers a shock, although it does not quite pay off as it might in the work of Graham Greene -- another writer for whom the intersection of the personal and the political was a source of endless fascination, and one to whom Galgut has been justly compared.
The eponymous impostor of Galgut's novel could be any of its characters, but the grandest impostor is the country as a whole, the ?new? South Africa: it is a nation, Galgut seems to say, that has lied to itself about just how much has truly changed. Canning is proud of his marriage to Baby, an arrangement that would have been illegal under the old race laws; they are a ?new South African couple,? he brags. But to be with her -- a desirable younger woman -- he pulled a stunt as old as time, or at least as old as man: he left his first wife and their child. In taking an X-ray of contemporary South Africa, The Impostor locates the ailments that plague all democracies: the adaptability of the ruling class, the resilience of corruption, the germ of selfishness. Much may be different in this new nation, including the outback town to which Adam moves, with its black mayor and its rechristening under an African name; but the mayor takes bribes from white developers. And the new name only means that, as Adam's brother puts it, ?They've got to reprint all the maps.? --Ian MacKenzie
Ian MacKenzie, a former public high school teacher, writes fiction and criticism. His first novel, City of Strangers, will be published by Penguin in 2009. He lives in Brooklyn.
Once that first image fades, he sees past it to how beautiful she is. She is like an exotic doll, all her tiny features in immaculate proportion. She’s also young; at least ten years younger than Canning — which means ten years younger than Adam too.
‘My wife, Baby,’ Canning says. ‘Baby, this is Nappy.’
She holds out her hand. He can feel her long nails in his palm. The sensation lets something loose in him — distaste mixed with desire. He holds her fingers for a second longer than is necessary.
‘I’ve heard so much about you,’ she says. ‘My husband has talked about you so many times.’
Her voice is low, husky, a little disinterested. The accent is neutral and rootless, hard to place. Her eyes linger on him for a moment, summing him up, before dismissing him.
‘What do you think?’ Canning says proudly. ‘I told you my wife is amazing.’
‘Yes,’ Adam murmurs. He doesn’t know what else to say. It’s true: she is amazing —though perhaps not in the way that Canning means. And what kind of a name is Baby?
‘I’m just going to show Nappy around.’
‘Yes, do,’ she says.
But Canning doesn’t move. He stands there, smiling fixedly, appearing almost desperate, staring at his wife as if he’s the one who’s just met her. She pulls the coat tighter around herself and gives a languid little shrug, before turning around and gazing into the distance. Only then, with a discernible effort, does Canning set himself in motion. Adam follows him the last few steps into the big building, both of them casting a backward glance towards the singular figure, standing alone on the grass.
Now they have walked into a tall, sepulchral space, in which Adam’s eyes have to adjust. He sees constituent elements before he sees the whole: slate floors, high conical roof, prints of wildlife paintings on the walls, between signboards with names on them like reception, wellness centre, conference rooms. It feels as if it should be jammed with people, but the place is empty. The sound of their feet quavers coldly around them.
‘What is this? A game lodge?’
‘There you are. Right first time.’
Other details are coming to him now: animal heads mounted on the wall. A fireplace framed by two gleaming white tusks, a zebra-skin spread out on the floor in front of it.
‘But where are the people?’
‘Well, we’re here, aren’t we?’
Canning seems to be enjoying Adam’s confusion. He leads his guest down some stairs towards a bar, fully stocked with drinks. Through a set of doors to one side, Adam sees a kitchen in which there is a flurry of menial activity. ‘No, no,’ Canning says, when Adam holds out the wine he’s brought along. ‘Put that away. Let me mix you one of my lethal little cocktails. It took me years to get the formula just right.’ He concocts a toxic-looking, bright blue mixture and dispenses it into two tall glasses, giving one to Adam. ‘Cheers,’ he says. ‘Here’s to old friends!’
‘Old friends,’ Adam says, and drinks.
‘Are you surprised by my wife?’ Canning asks abruptly.
‘Surprised? No. Why would I be?’
‘Well. Because she’s black, for one thing.’
‘But who cares about that?’
That is, in fact, the least surprising thing about her.
‘We’re a new South African couple,’ Canning says.
Adam feels irritated. There is nothing very new, or even especially unusual, about having a black spouse these days, and it seems gratuitous to be harping on it. Though it’s also true that Canning isn’t your typical modern South African man. But the surprise is connected to Canning, not Baby, and it’s as if he himself recognizes this fact when his tone changes suddenly, from pride to panic:
‘I love my wife, Nappy. I love her very badly! I don’t want to give her up.’
Afterwards, when Adam remembers this conversation, it is that one word, ‘badly’, which stands out for him. How can you love somebody badly? But he says, in a soothing voice, ‘You don’t have to give her up, do you?’
Canning is sunk in gloom now, as if the twilight has affected him. But then his mood switches again. ‘Come with me,’ he says. ‘There’s something special I want to show you.’
The light is fading as they go back out onto the lawn. Adam looks, but Baby has disappeared. Canning leads him away from the complex, in the direction of the river. They pass in silence through concentric rings of cultivation that radiate outwards, each one a little wilder and more unkempt than the last. There is an orchard, and below that an open field, churned-up and broken, in which nothing has been planted. Then a wall of trees goes up, complex and knotted, lush with the proximity to water. Along the way, Adam sees the greeny-blue, outrageous shapes of peacocks everywhere.
Posted March 30, 2011
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Posted April 27, 2011
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