Perfect Man

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Winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Europe and South Asia.
Winner of the 2008 PEN Beyond Margins Award.

Identity, friendship, and a long-hidden crime lie at the heart of Naeem Murr?s captivating novel about five friends growing up in a small 1950s Missouri river town. A contender for the Man Booker Prize, this exhilarating story beautifully evokes the extreme joys, as well as the dark and shameful ...

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Overview

Winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Europe and South Asia.
Winner of the 2008 PEN Beyond Margins Award.

Identity, friendship, and a long-hidden crime lie at the heart of Naeem Murr’s captivating novel about five friends growing up in a small 1950s Missouri river town. A contender for the Man Booker Prize, this exhilarating story beautifully evokes the extreme joys, as well as the dark and shameful desires, of childhood.

Young Rajiv Travers hasn’t had much luck fitting in anywhere. Born to an Indian mother who was sold to his English father for £20, Raj is abandoned by his relatives into the reluctant care of Ruth, an American romance writer living in Pisgah, Missouri. While his skin color unsettles most of the townsfolk, who are used to seeing things in black and white, the quick-witted Raj soon finds his place among a group of children his own age.

While the friends remain loyal to one another through the years, it becomes clear that their paths will veer in markedly different directions. But breaking free of the demands of their families and their community, as well as one another, comes at a devastating price: As the chilling secrets of Pisgah’s residents surface, the madness that erupts will cost Raj his closest friend even as it offers him the life he always dreamed of.

Taking us into the intimate life of small-town America, The Perfect Man explores both the power of the secrets that shape us and the capacity of love in all its guises to heal even the most damaged of souls.

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Editorial Reviews

Donna Rifkind
"Heartland Gothic" is the quickest way to describe Naeem Murr's new book, but it is as inaccurate as any shorthand for so defiantly unclassifiable a novel. The Perfect Man sits uncomfortably in its time period—the 1950s—and is not as Gothic as Murr encourages readers to expect. It isn't quite a coming-of-age story or an immigration saga, either, although the author seems to be attempting to wedge it into these categories as well.

Instead, The Perfect Man is a long, fitful narrative punctuated with intermittent patches of arrestingly beautiful writing.
—The Washington Post

Mark Kamine
Murr, a bracingly straightforward writer whose flourishes are rare and subtle (a too-thin schoolteacher has “pale freckled skin sealed to her bones”), dexterously advances multiple story lines, overlapping them now and then with rich results.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Murr elegantly explores smalltown insularity and secrecy in this Commonwealth Award– winning third novel, following The Boyand The Genius of the Sea. Abandoned by his white father and his absent Indian mother, rejected by his intolerant London relatives, Rajiv Travers, 12 years old in 1954, is sent to stay with his father's other brother, Oliver, who has recently followed the love of his life, romance novelist Ruth, from New York City to tiny Pisgah, Mo. In short order, Oliver commits suicide, and Ruth becomes an uneasy guardian to this curious young boy, who shields himself from pain and prejudice with his quick wit and shrewd impersonations. Peerwise, Raj is quickly taken under the wing of Annie Celli, already a striking beauty, joining a group that also includes Annie's soul mate, the delicate and emotionally fragile Lewis. As the friends grow into young men and women, Annie finds herself torn between her devotion to the increasingly unstable Lewis (who witnessed his younger brother's murder) and her undeniable feelings for Raj. Murr takes a Faulknerian approach to his portrait of Pisgah, peopling it with minor characters whose eccentricities provide local color and shrouded gothic elements—one of which reverberates menacingly. Murr poignantly dramatizes love's capacity to effect change. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
School Library Journal

Adult/High School -This book could accurately be described as gothic fiction, a coming-of-age novel, or a melodrama. Indeed, it succeeds so intelligently and precisely in blending these genres with a cast of multigenerational characters that readers are left transfixed. Twice abandoned by irresponsible, callous relatives, Raj, 12, is abruptly left in the reluctant hands of romance novelist Ruth, the girlfriend of a deceased uncle. Raj, India-born and London-raised, is the ultimate outsider by the standards of his new 1950s Pisgah, MO, home. Although he is a derisive clown and a brilliant mimic, he desires to be accepted into the fabric of the town. Murr writes: "as a child he would spend hours imagining himself as ruggedly handsome, laconic, and dangerously impulsive as the men of Ruth's romances. Brutally powerful, morbidly sensitive, he was the perfect man." Ultimately, however, his inability to achieve such a personal ideal or to homogenize with the community is his salvation from the darkness of Pisgah and the corrupt adult world. The novel leaps seamlessly among perspectives, story lines, and time periods. Murr becomes almost playful in a dizzying carousel of dualisms: youth and maturity, intensity and detachment, sanity and madness, aggression and passivity, male and female, life and death, helplessness and power. These extremes are easily reached, discarded, and compounded through a parade of deeply complex characters. It is then the quieter, individual moments of thoughtfulness, imagination, and compassion that allow some characters a sense of faith and glimpse of humanity. This title will appeal to a wide range of readers.-Shannon Peterson, Kitsap Regional Library,WA

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Both literary and lurid, Murr's third novel (The Genius of the Sea, 2003 etc.) uses the perspective of an alienated soul to examine a Missouri community in the 1950s stewing in a broth of violence, sexuality, bigotry and secrets. London-born, U.S.-based Murr stirs many extreme ingredients into the pot. He tells a tale of seething emotions, elegantly-phrased yet feverish, that's surely destined to erupt in dramatic fashion. The opening serves as a prologue, in which Gerard Travers leaves his illegitimate Indian son Rajiv with his brother Haig in post-World War II London. Rajiv is smart, a talented mimic and a misfit who will be passed on to the third Travers brother Olly, cohabiting with Ruth, a romance writer in Pisgah, Mo.-except that by the time Raj arrives, Olly is dead. But Ruth befriends the boy anyway, as do the local children: Annie, whose Italian father runs the local store and might have murdered a mentally-challenged boy named Roh; fragile Lewis, Roh's brother, who has become convinced-after two years in a mental hospital-that he killed Roh himself; Norah, who is attracted to Raj although he is more attracted to Annie; and creepy Alvin, who thinks mostly about sex, death and wounded animals. The parents and siblings of this group line up on either side of an extreme gender divide: Many of the men are brutish and vile (like Norah's cruelly voyeuristic father) and the women bovine, lonely or borderline insane. Ruth asks repeatedly: "Is there a single good man in the world . . . ?" and the answer, when it eventually comes-after many, many episodes of depravity and tragedy, and considerably less innocence and hope-is a distinct Maybe. Murr's impressive literary abilities are appliedto a gargantuan gothic panoramic spotlit with emotional insight.
From the Publisher
“Naeem Murr's The Perfect Man is astonishing in its depth and insight. In prose that is both spare and excruciatingly vivid, Murr's warts-and-all portrayal of humanity haunts you long after you've turned the last page.” — Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants

“Naeem Murr vividly evokes the passionate world of childhood and adolesence as he tells the compelling story of Rajiv Travers, the ultimate outsider, and his unlikely group of supporters in a small town in Missouri.  The Perfect Man is a beautiful and fiercely readable novel.” — Margot Livesey, author of Banishing Verona

“This nuanced, spellbinding novel is one of the most captivating I’ve ever read. From the lucid, breathtaking prose to the wicked humor, from the author’s deep and rare compassion to the ensemble cast of beautifully rendered, beautifully conflicted characters, the book explores not merely what it means to be young or innocent, not what it means to be an immigrant or American, but what it means to be human. Naeem Murr’s novel is a dark and gorgeous revelation.” --Bret Anthony Johnston, author of Corpus Christi: Stories

“[The Perfect Man] succeeds in re-creating an entire world with a full spectrum of human emotions in a small Missouri town, as Faulkner did in the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi.”
–The Times Literary Supplement (London)

“In Pisgah, [Murr] has created a fully fledged, self-contained world, with a vast array of characters, each quixotic and authentically flawed. . . . The Perfect Man succeeds because it’s so impeccably well written.”
–Lionel Shriver, Financial Times, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780099450023
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/28/2007

Meet the Author

Naeem Murr is the author of The Genius of the Sea and The Boy, a New York Times Notable Book. A recipient of numerous awards and scholarships for his writing, he has published many acclaimed stories, novellas, and nonfiction pieces in literary journals. He was a Stanford University Creative Writing Fellow, and was recently awarded a Lannan Residency Fellowship. He has been a writer-in-residence at the University of Missouri, Western Michigan University, and Northwestern University. Born and raised in London, he has lived in America since his early twenties, and currently resides in Chicago. Visit the author’s website at www.naeemmurr.com.
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Read an Excerpt

London 1947

Gerard travers lifted the little dark boy off the train and onto the platform at Victoria. It had been a hard journey from India for the child, who had cried constantly for his mother and had wet himself every night. Gerard heard a shout and turned to see his older brother, waving and pushing through the crowd.

“Raggy, Raggy boy,” Haig called. He was a crude muttonchopped version of the tall and leonine Gerard.

After they embraced, Gerard raised the child in his arms, confronting his brother with a pair of large mournful eyes. The boy was sucking and gnawing at the back of his hand. “Here’s the sprog, Eggy—as forewarned.”

Haig peered into the boy’s plump face, smiling and patting his leg. “Crikey, he’s already got a permanent frown. How old is he?”

“Five . . . ish.” Putting the boy down, Gerard surveyed the station as if he could see limitless opportunity in every aspect of this dirty bustling place.

“Ish?”

“Born during the monsoon, apparently.”

“Well, that’s helpful. What are you going to do with him, Rags?”

“I have an honest proposal. Where’s Brenna?”

“Oh, had something she couldn’t get out of today.”

“And how’s . . . ? What is she, six now?”

“Cecilia. Seven. She’s tip-top.”

Abruptly, Gerard set off toward the baggage carriage at the front of the train, drawing Haig into the giddying wake of his headlong energy. As he walked, he continued to subject everything around him to his speculative gaze, though his open face, with its wide-set eyes, tempered this look with something nearly naïve. He was a man one could imagine being foolishly brave in pursuit of self-serving ends. Though self-serving wasn’t quite right, either, for Gerard clearly had no desire merely to possess, any more than the true gambler wants only money.

In contrast Haig seemed plodding, with a bland literal face that would have lacked any force without those muttonchops inherited from his father.

As they were slowed by the crowd around the baggage carriage, Gerard rested a hand on his brother’s shoulder, examining him with uncharacteristic gravity, and said, “I got a shock when I saw you coming through the crowd.”

“A shock?”

“Thought it was the old man.”

“Well, I’d never be able to deny I was his son, much as I’d want to.”

They pulled the luggage from the pile on the platform, and just as they were about to exit, Haig said, “The boy!”

They rushed back to where Gerard had got off. The little Indian boy, crying, held the hand of a woman who was bent over him, talking gently.

“There’s the little blighter,” Gerard said. “Oh, my lord.” He met the woman’s scathing face. “Lost him in the crowd.” He called down to the boy, “You must stay with me, Raj.”

“This is your child?” the woman said.

“He’s in my charge, madam. An orphan. I brought him here to treat his leprosy.”

The woman snatched her hand out of the boy’s.

“Thank you for your kindness,” he called, as she hurried away.

He took the child’s hand, and they all left the station and got into a taxi.

“Heard from Olly?” Gerard asked as it pulled out.

“America. He’s as all over the map as you are. He was in New York. Met some woman who runs a nightclub. Older than he, as usual.”

“Always lands on his feet, doesn’t he. Women love him. It’s that abandoned look. They start lactating the minute he walks into the room.”

“Raggy!” Haig laughed.

Gerard’s own laughter clenched his face like an impending sneeze but never came. It rarely did. Joy was simply unable to collect in sufficient intensity to become laughter. Gerard couldn’t stop, only stall, and if he stalled he would plummet. As he stared back out of the taxi window, a frown vaguely breached and receded in his face—clearly, joy wasn’t the only emotion at his heels. “Does Olly still have his . . . problem?” he said softly.

“With him for life, I should think.”

“I’m surprised he’s lasted this long.”

Haig nodded.

“Did he come back for Father’s funeral?”

Shaking his head, Haig said, “I had to tell everyone you two were too grief-stricken. Couldn’t tell them Olly had sent a note asking me to make sure they put a stake through his heart before they closed the coffin, and you sent a very expensive telegram: c stop a stop p stop i stop t stop a stop l stop. I can still hear the old bastard saying it.”

The two men smiled and sat in a silence that grew heavy until Haig finally said, “I think Brenna’s worried you’re coming for the rest of your share.”

“I wouldn’t make you sell the house. God knows, though, it should have been burned with his body in it. I don’t know how you can live there.”

“Only, things are a bit tight. I lost a lot in that Italian—”

“It was the war,” Gerard cut in. “Would have made a fortune. I’ll steer you right, though. Got my fingers in a prime opportunity.”

“Brenna would kill me.”

“What Brenna doesn’t know won’t hurt you.” Gerard snatched the boy’s hand out of his mouth. “Stop that.” He had been sucking on it for days, and the skin had become raw.

The boy pointed out of the window. “Chirdiyao ka rang gharo jaisa hai.”

“What’s he say, Ger?”

“English,” Gerard said to the boy, who frowned and flapped his hands. “He’s speaking Hindi. I don’t speak Hindi.”

“Good lord, Ger. Didn’t you ever talk to his mother?”

Gerard didn’t respond.

“I’m sorry.”

“No need. I’ve been a fool. You know, I’ve often thought that when there’s siblings they share everything out between them. Olly got all the luck with women.” Gerard pulled himself up and cleared his throat. “Brenna’s great. I don’t mean—”

Haig nodded, raising a hand to show no offense had been taken.

“But my God, Eggy, you met a few of them: Heather, Chloe, Loretta—women to die for. All crazy about him and he broke their hearts.”

“You bravely stepped into the breach a few times, as I recall.”

“We can’t have people misusing beautiful things, Eggy. Anyway, on the whole I’ve had no luck in that department. Nina took me for pretty much everything I had.”

“You mean she didn’t give you everything she had.”

Gerard ignored this. “And that Argentinean woman almost got me killed.”

“As I recall, she’d just finished tying you to her bed for a spot of kinky high jinks when her husband walked in.”

“I was damn well helpless.”

“I’m surprised he didn’t kill you.”

Smiling, Gerard said, “You know why, don’t you? Have I never told you?”

“No.”

Gerard leaned in. “He was of the other persuasion. A patented palm tickler. Ordered his wife out and had the time of his life.”

“No.”

“Tell you the truth, I was so relieved I still remember it fondly.”

“No!”

Gerard sat back again, his face contorting with that near sneeze of laughter. “Nothing’s ever as bad as you think, Eggy boy, long as you survive.” He nodded toward the child. “His mother was the most beautiful creature you’ve ever seen in your life. Sprog’s got her eyes—look at them—huge ruddy great things. Stunning. She was like every strange and beautiful thing in that country in one face. And her expression. . . .” He shook his head. “The wisdom of ten thousand years.” He pulled the boy’s hand out of his mouth again. “Wish he didn’t look so bloody Indian. Nothing of me in him. He’s black as pitch.”

“He’s not that dark. And he does look like you.”

Becoming aware that he was being talked about, the boy looked at Haig with an expression that was utterly pitiful, over at Gerard as if at something brutishly incomprehensible, and then back into the street with a resigned anxiety that suggested just how much he had already endured.

“Why didn’t you leave him with his mother?”

“No clue where she is.” He hesitated. “I am a fool. You know what I’m like when I get something in my head.”

“I know: idée fixe.”

“And an astonishing idea it was too, Eggy. I mean, I thought I was going to stay in India forever. And this woman would be—well, like my wife.”

“Except no one would know about her, of course.”

“Not at first, but I thought eventually yes. I’d teach her to speak English, educate her.”

“Oh, my God.” With exhausted despair, Haig rubbed his closed eyes with both hands. “Oh, my God.”

“Anyway, I won’t go through everything. I bought her—outright—for twenty pounds.”

“You bought her?”

“I think from her parents, but I can’t be sure. And I married her. I did marry her—in the native way. I didn’t want her to get . . . you know; tried to be careful. Only knew when she began to show. Asked her to

get rid of it, but she didn’t understand. Had no luck teaching her

English.”

“Always the bloody same. Ever since you were old enough to speak. You’d get something in your head. You’d get obsessed, and as soon as you got it you’d lose interest.” Haig gestured toward the child. “This isn’t a damn investment scheme.”

“I know that. I know that.” As he glanced at his son, Gerard’s expression suggested a fear that no matter how much he risked, all he would ever get in return was encompassed right here in this dark, plump, lonely little boy. Quickly he turned back to the street. “I tried to teach her, but she didn’t seem able to retain a single word. So finally I hired this Indian chap to work with her full time. And he spent about an hour with her on the first day, and he comes to me, and he’s cringing as if he thinks I’m going to kill him. And he says, ‘Sahib, your . . . your woman.’

“ ‘My wife,’ I said.

“ ‘She’s . . .’ ”—Gerard acted like the Indian man, searching for the word, staring abjectly into Haig’s face—“ ‘she’s simple—like a simple person.’ ”

Haig stared open-mouthed for a moment. Then he began to laugh, doubled over—wheezing, body-racking laughs.

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Reading Group Guide

1. As a schoolboy in England, and then as a young newcomer to a strange, new town in America, how does Rajiv Travers deflect people’s prejudice against his dark skin and unfamiliar accent? What talents does he draw on to establish himself in Pisgah, Missouri?

2. Ruth Winters is originally reluctant to have Raj stay with her. Why does she agree to take the boy in? What motivates her to write such hateful things about him in her journals? How does their relationship evolve over time, and what do they gain from each other?

3. There are many stories of courtship in the novel, including those of Annie and Lewis, Nora and Raj, Annie’s mother and father, Lewis’s downtrodden father and his young Orphan Train bride, and Ruth and Oliver. What draws these people together? Which are the healthiest and which the least healthy of these relationships?

4. How would you describe the dynamics between males and females in the world that Naeem Murr has depicted?

5. There are two tightly knit groups in Pisgah: Raj’s circle of childhood friends, and Bennet’s group of grown men. When you compare these two groups, what differences do you find? In each group, who is the leader, and what gives that person his or her power, and what roles do the other individuals play in these groups?

6. The mysterious death of Lewis’s autistic little brother Roh back in 1952 is a profoundly disturbing event with long-lasting repercussions. Which characters in the novel are most significantly shaped by this dark event, and who is ultimately culpable for the boy’s untimely demise? And who for what happens to Lewis?

7. Why is Judy so determined to forge a friendship with Ruth and why do her attempts fail so miserably?

8. Annie describes Nora as being both strong and delicate: “It was as if the soul of a cat had found its way into the body of a cow” (45). But in times of crisis, such as when the group finds Mrs. Barnacle’s body, Nora’s brave side always wins out. What makes Nora so courageous? Why does Rajiv admire her courage so much?

9. Why does Alvin have such a hard time fitting in? What motivates him to steal?

10. How would you characterize the short excerpts from Ruth’s romance writing that appear in The Perfect Man? What purpose do they serve in the novel?

11. Annie is drawn to both Raj and Lew, with an intensity that makes her jealous of their close bond with each other. Which one does she ultimately choose to spend her life with, and what is this decision based on? Why does she have such a hard time picking a name for Baby?

12. As a grown man, Raj recalls that when he was young, he dreamed of being one of Ruth’s characters: “Brutally powerful, morbidly sensitive, he was the perfect man.” Why would Raj aspire to this, and how close does he come to achieving his goal? Why do you think the novel is titled The Perfect Man?

13. In a letter to his brother Gerard, Oliver Travers writes that “transformation is just a fantasy, like Ruth’s Romances . . .” Is Oliver right? Which characters, if any, in this novel reveal themselves to be capable of real and fundamental transformation? Which, if any, are shown to be incapable of such change?

14. Which characters in The Perfect Man have a true moral compass? Which are the most despicable, and why? Which are the most honorable and why?

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