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.
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.
In fact, language is Rush's real interest in "Mortals." African rebels, the Botswana landscape, and the complex political crises tearing through this country remain on the periphery, slipping through Ray's mental patter like snippets of conversation from another table. Even voluminous Milton seems shrunken by his appreciation.
Not surprisingly, Iris hungers for different voices, but Ray's all-consuming adoration leaves no space. He's annoyed by her concern for her sister back in the States. He resents the witty letters his gay brother sends her. And when Iris seeks psychiatric treatment from a doctor newly arrived from Boston, Ray can't resist abusing the tools of his trade to investigate (and silence) this imagined rival.
Dr. Morel isn't just an anti-Ray, though. He's a self-proclaimed antichrist, determined to lift the yoke of Christian subservience from the neck of Africa. "Faith is a toxin," he announces, and "obedience ultimately kills," an argument that doesn't rest comfortably alongside Ray's favorite, "Paradise Lost."
Rush takes many risks in this lengthy novel, but his decision to transcribe one of Dr. Morel's antireligion lectures is perhaps the most daring. Even more so, because Rush is the ultimate double agent in this slippery narrative. Just as Dr. Morel's analysis of the horrors inflicted by Christian doctrine begins to sound irrefutable, Ray picks his argument apart, pointing out facts that contradict the doctor's thesis and scoffing at his naiveté.
Halfway through, the novel seems ready to burst under the strain of all these disparate themes, but then "Mortals" makes yet another startling shift, moving from domestic drama to cultural debate to military adventure.
Determined to extinguish some political trouble that he's inadvertently aggravated, Ray leaves Iris and heads into the bush, where he endures depravation and torture. In a surreal battle scene, words - torrents of words - become an effective defense against bullets and bombs. But the novel's relentless attention to Ray's mind in the middle of this mayhem sometimes drags these exciting scenes into slow motion, creating a narrative that's alternately panoramic and microscopic, rousing and sluggish.
The cost of Rush's determination to capture every synapse in Ray's brain becomes most burdensome in a final sex scene so overextended that hyperventilating teens and prissy puritans will run their yellow highlighters dry. Never has eroticism been so laborious.
But the ambition of this unwieldy masterpiece is so heroic that ultimately its weaknesses seem more like tragic flaws, defining qualities we can lament but can't imagine "Mortals" without. Rush has recreated the mental life of an original man from the ground up, raising a host of profound questions about the limits of love and language. Readers who endure to the end - perhaps "fit but few" - will consider for a long time how Ray and Iris "take their solitary way."
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.