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One man's paradise lost in Africa

A genteel spy who can't resist the temptation to say too much

By Ron Charles / June 5, 2003

In 1991, when he was 58, Norman Rush wrote his first novel, "Mating," and won the National Book Award. Now, just when he was looking like another of America's great single-novel authors, comes "Mortals," a 700-page detonation of talent that threatens to incinerate competitors for miles around. As an investigator of marital relations, he upstages Updike; as a critic of political hypocrisy, he has more wrath than Roth.

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With a breathless intensity that's both dazzling and exhausting, the story focuses on the fertile mind of an English teacher in Botswana. Ray is an American, a Milton scholar, a happily married man, and a spy with the CIA. He knows the agency is "organized guile," but by carefully parsing moral lines, he manages to feel proud of its success against the Soviet Union, while distancing himself from that "unpleasantness" in Angola, Nicaragua, and elsewhere.

"He wasn't a thug," he protests. "In fact he took pride in the certainty that he had never directly injured anyone in all his years in intelligence, not once, directly. He sees himself as a provider of truths."

We meet Ray just as the legs of his elegant life are buckling. At work, he confronts a new spy boss, the aptly named Mr. Boyle, who conducts terse meetings in a dim, soundproof closet. At home, charming repartee is under assault too. For 17 years, Ray has been married to Iris, a beautiful, younger woman who finds his connection to the CIA increasingly intolerable. Despite how desperately he loves her - think Othello, pale - depression is casting a dark shadow over her mind, inspiring a smattering of "declarations of dissatisfaction."

"It was unfair," Ray whines to himself, "that something was going wrong with her just at the moment you might say all the moving parts in the machinery of his life were in order."

True to his agency training - and to his gender - Ray imagines this is a problem that can be "fixed." He's wholly devoted to making her happy, but with a kind of determination that's downright oppressive. "You turn into a beast of attention," Iris complains. "You're reading me. Scanning me. It feels like suction when you do this."

These are troubling scenes, bound to make anyone in love nervous. Readers will need what Milton called "the better fortitude of patience" to get through hundreds of pages of this searing analysis, but Rush needs all this room to pursue the sprawling map of Ray's mind. It's an astounding accomplishment - a dissection of consciousness with all its contradictory impulses and voices.

Despite Ray and Iris's robust sex life, what's far more original - and ironically more intimate - is their linguistic life. They're essentially in love with each other's language. Their relationship, transcribed here in the private idioms of affection, is woven from hundreds of pet puns, bons mots, clever turns of phrase, and witty observations.