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  • Written by Naeem Murr
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  • Written by Naeem Murr
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A Novel

Written by Naeem MurrAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Naeem Murr

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On Sale: April 17, 2007
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-664-1
Published by : Random House Trade Paperbacks Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

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.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

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.
Naeem Murr|Author Q&A

About Naeem Murr

Naeem Murr - The Perfect Man

Photo © Alan Cross

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.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Naeem Murr about The Perfect Man

RC: Your three novels are very different in terms of place, structure, even style. Your first, The Boy, set in a derelict and labyrinthine London, is lyrical and psychological. Your second, The Genius of the Sea, ranges from Thailand to South America, with elements of magic realism and a stories-within-stories structure. And now The Perfect Man, taking place, for the most part, in the small 1950s river town of Pisgah, Missouri, and bringing to life a vivid community bound by long-held secrets. Are there elements that are common to all of your books?

NM: A number of things, but perhaps most significantly those long-held secrets you mentioned. As a child my imagination was provoked by what I was not told; by the silence, particularly with respect to the pasts of adults who were important to me: my mother, who never spoke about her clearly troubled past; and my father, who died when I was a baby and existed only as a black and white photograph in my room.
I think for children, adults, particularly parents, stand between them and the world before they were born, as well as the world beyond childhood. The more secretive and mysterious that adult is, the more imaginative the child is forced to be about what once existed and what lies ahead. I can’t help but see the writing of fiction, at least in part, as my reaction to this silence.

RC: Why 1950s Missouri?

NM: I loved Missouri, where I lived for a number of years; near the river itself, in fact, which is beautiful, flowing between high bluffs and the eerie landscape of the flood plains. It’s a very green, wet, and fecund place, which I found extremely evocative. Spending time in a particular landscape slowly separates me from other places I’ve known, from my past, myself; and the less I’m cluttered with myself, the freer I am to imagine. And what I imagined was the people for whom this place was home.
What also drew me is that Missouri is right at the heart of America, arguably between North and South, certainly between East and West, which makes it fitting that it was once the bed of a sea that split this continent. The rocks are full of fossils. There are large Amish communities, which take you back centuries, and, of course, many old farming towns, most falling into dereliction. So I experienced a vivid sense of past in a place that was alien to me, which was like that first, provocative silence I talked about. For me place provokes character–an element that comes out of that world but also resists it. When these characters become vivid enough, cross a certain threshold, they begin to tell their own stories. In Missouri, the first character that came to me was Ruth, followed by Annie, Raj, and Lewis.

RC: At that stage are you simply holding the rudder as the author?

NM: In a way. But as the writer you are also–to extend your metaphor–the one who has to design and build the ship. What you bring to bear, of course, is craft, which you hope to apply well enough that no one will notice. You want a novel that moves well, carrying its weight elegantly. You need to establish a structure that enhances both meaning and motion. And to decide how to tell this story: what to reveal and when; which characters to enter and which to remain outside of. One of the most important decisions for me concerned Rajiv. To express his character, with its elusive, provocative, and touchstone qualities, I felt he had to be at once central and peripheral. So I decided to begin the book focused on him, but then to have it open out into the life of the town, and never to actually enter his perspective directly until the end.

RC: What other important structural/narrative choices did you make?

NM: Well, there’s a group of men in the town who play a big part in the novel. I kept them almost invariably together, as if they were a kind of single organism. Of course there are psychological reasons for this–people behave in groups in ways they would never imagine behaving alone. But with respect to the structure of the book, this is also because they inhabit a number of scenes that occur many years before the present time of the novel. To reduce the disruption and potential confusion of these shifts in time, I wanted to have these chapters feel very different from the rest of the book. So I tried to establish a unique group dynamic in scenes that all take place in darkness, in woods, among ruin, giving them a shared atmosphere.

RC: You once commented that “the only thing a fiction writer needs in order to convey all human conflict and triumph is a few people meeting in the same place.” Can you explain what you meant by this?

NM: Sure. I was really talking about character–which is at the heart of all good fiction. I think the reason all true fiction writers are more obsessed with character than any number of ideas is that no matter how great an idea–religious, political, or otherwise–it’s condemned to find its ultimate expression through individuals. Through character. Compare the town’s minister, with his conventional Christianity, to Lewis, struggling to invent his own system of belief. Who is more admirable? But this is not the fault of Christianity, which is about love and compassion. I’m not sure any idea, however powerful, could leaven, in any way, the petty vanity of that man’s character.

RC: Let’s get back for a moment to the connections between this story and your own experiences. Aren’t there certain parallels–for example between your own strong, secretive mother and Ruth? Or Raj’s absent father and your own?

NM: Ruth is certainly strong and secretive, but her character is very different from that of my mother, who is extremely gregarious and charming. Raj’s father is absent, but is still alive, and ultimately comes to be somewhat malevolently present in his absence. But to say that this world is utterly disconnected from my own experience would be false. Any fiction is, to some extent, an imaginative recasting of the author’s experience. Of course I was not brought up in a small town in Missouri during the 1950s; my childhood landscape was urban London. However, I did grow up in a huge apartment block full of poor immigrant families–Irish, Spanish, Indian, Greek, West Indian, Italian, Middle Eastern. In many ways, this was just like a small town (or like the world of the small town I create in Pisgah), a self-contained community, slightly incestuous and porous, with the dozens of children who played together leaking to each other, in their naïve ways, the secrets of their families. We were in and out of each other’s homes, seeing, hearing, and learning much more of the mysteries of adult life than any of those adults could ever imagine. Though I didn’t have a father, I didn’t envy any child his or her father in that place: these men, often oppressive, violent, or simply absurd, took the air out of their homes. We also lived near Richmond Park, a huge city park where you could almost imagine yourself in the countryside. This was both a place of fear, since we were beaten up by older boys a number of times, but also of freedom and beauty where we spent our summers climbing trees, jumping ditches, and running through herds of deer. There’s no doubt that you can see much of this reconstituted in the novel. But to make such comparisons can also too narrowly define a work of fiction, which should be a world of its own, as new and compelling for the writer as it is for the reader.

RC: Is this a coming-of-age novel?

NM: In some ways, sure, at least as far as Annie and Raj are concerned. But what exactly does “coming of age” mean? Most of the adults in the novel, such as Ruth, are struggling just as profoundly to “become” something. These children are born into a world where there is no clear example of what to be or how to get there, but this crisis afflicts everyone in this world except those who have become less than human.
Here the novel may reveal some contemporary anxiety. We live in a culture that increasingly devalues adulthood. People are being allowed, encouraged, and conditioned to think and feel in less than adult ways. We are deluged with fantasy, and many adults are turning to narratives whose sole function is to comfort and empower. Either this or they are putting their faith in the so-called “literal” truth, as reflected in the popularity of non-fiction and the increasingly literal readings and interpretations of religious texts. Adulthood is being equated with unimaginativeness, as if childhood is the only realm of the imagination. Is it any wonder that we now find ourselves in a world dangerously polarized between fantasy and fundamentalism?

RC: Does this mean you feel pessimistic? Certainly The Perfect Man doesn’t seem pessimistic. For all the tragedy there is also a great deal of wonderful humor, the development of a profound love, a good number of deeply sympathetic characters, and the ending seemed very optimistic–though, of course, in a way that is not unequivocal.

NM: There are really two endings to the novel. The penultimate chapter ends the drama focused on the collective world of that small town and the mystery of what happened to the child who died some years before Raj’s arrival. Here this secret finally erupts, as suppressed truth tends to, in a distorted and destructive way, implicating every member of the community. The last chapter focuses on Raj more specifically, the man he has become, and a critical decision he has to make. With regard to pessimism, I don’t feel pessimistic. Beneath all tragedy and horror lies the miraculous fact of human existence. I also think that pessimism simply can’t be afforded at this juncture. We are in a very treacherous place, given what is going on in the world, and the void of imagination and compassion that is leading to such seemingly intractable polarization.

RC: The Times Literary Supplement compared you to Faulkner, praising you for “recreating an entire world with a full spectrum of human emotions” as Faulkner did with Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi. The review goes on say that “it does not matter whether the story is told in Pisgah, or in New York: the story of growing up, loving, losing, hating and yearning is the same everywhere.” Were you surprised by this claim that The Perfect Man is a universal story?

NM: I don’t think a writer can, or should, ever set out to write a universal story. I do think that I was at a point as a writer where I felt ready, in terms of my understanding of the art and craft of fiction, the architecture of the novel, to write a book with the scope of The Perfect Man–many characters, interweaving plot lines, large group scenes, and so on. But that wasn’t the reason to write this. The reason was Annie, with her one bare foot and Romanesque face, Lewis, with his doomed innocence, Ruth’s angry regret, Raj’s extreme sensitivity and elusive humor, Nora’s bravery. In the end, as I said before, it always comes down to the individual, character. The only way a work of fiction can become universal is if the writer focuses single-mindedly on particular characters in their very specific circumstances. For me, as I think for all pure fiction writers, the magic and power of fiction is in its central paradox: by telling, as objectively, honestly, specifically, and skillfully as you can the story of one person, you tell, at some level, the story of us all.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“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

Awards

WINNER 2007 Commonwealth Writers' Prize of Europe and South Asia
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

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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