Does anyone but me remember Dondi? Debuting in 1955, for over 30 years this immensely popular newspaper comic strip by Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen portrayed the adventures of a hapless, big-eyed war orphan (later adopted into a family) as he made his Little Orphan Annie way in the world without benefit of his own Daddy Warbucks. The sentimental strip had legs, even becoming a notoriously bad film with David Janssen in 1961, but eventually faltered in a sadder, more complex world where such microcosmic treatment of mass refugee problems came to seem antiquated and beside the point.
Dondi’s mutable origins — he was first an Italian boy from WWII, then a Korean, then even a Vietnamese, as those conflicts superseded each other — adumbrated the eternality of war and smashed families, the ceaseless quest for new connections of the heart in the face of loss. The notion of a charming gutter waif’s plight still being able to make an appeal to a contemporary audience is not so far-fetched.
Surely Nick Harkaway, author of the gonzo "The Gone-Away World" and the Pynchonesque "Angelmaker," remembers Dondi and is hip to the lad’s enduring charms, for in his third novel, Tigerman, he has created just such an icon, fully reengineered for the 21st century. With additional heartfelt and savvy lashings of Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, as well as a soupçon of William Burroughs and Bogart’s Casablanca (and maybe just a dash of that madcap “Occupying Forces Meet Native Guile and Indolence” cinematic farce, "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?"), Harkaway delivers a book that is simultaneously lighthearted yet full of wounded gravitas; satirical yet earnest; hard-edged yet sentimental in the best possible way.
This novel manages to be, all at once, a piercing comedy, a suspenseful thriller, a critique of industrial capitalism, and a domestic melodrama about parenthood, without ever feeling like a farrago or patchwork. It’s an instance of storytelling where the narrative engine and voice are so sincere, authentic, and strong that the reader has no choice but to revel in the ride and hang his head out the window in the slipstream.
Picture an island named Mancreu, “a wild island port halfway between French North Africa and British South-East Asia:” Abundantly tropical, shaped like “a seagull sketched by a child.” Centuries of history. Polyglot, picturesque, its citizens charming and/or mildly venal, happy with small pleasures, abiding by a philosophy of “live and let live.” Kswah swah is the island’s motto: What happens, happens. Never an international player or a scene of any great deeds. A backwater, alternately ruled by the French and the British. A Ruritanian paradise, lovingly elaborated by Harkaway with many intimate details.
Then, some years before the start of our tale, chemical and mining companies arrive, seeking resources. They dig, pollute, cover up, then pollute some more. The analogy with controversial fracking practices is plain. Strange subterranean microbes are encountered and are accidentally introduced into the bottled-up toxic slurry, helping to create something truly dangerous and unpredictable. Then, a series of Cloud Discharges sparked by tectonics and vulcanism, sending weird metamorphic vapors across the island. The world takes notice: this stuff could escape and contaminate the entire planet! Mancreu is declared a stateless place, subject to cauterizing vaporization by nukes, once the world powers can get past their bickering and offload the native population.
Meanwhile, Mancreu is a William Burroughs Interzone, a Peter Lamborn Wilson Temporary Autonomous Zone, a Bogartean Casablanca. The spontaneous Black Fleet of pirates and criminals lies anchored in the bay. The citizens try to continue their accustomed existences, but they’re always watching over their shoulders for nukes, the ultimate Cloud Discharge, or the promised evacuation.
Into this, introduce the Sergeant: Lester Ferris, career UK army guy, follower of orders, solitary placeholder in Brighton House, the echoing Consul HQ. (And note the hint of iron in that surname. Mild on the outside, he’s the essence of competence and willpower within, though not unassailed by typical doubts and fears.) Lester has little to do in his official post. He’s appointed himself a kind of policeman, rescuing stray dogs and settling the odd dispute. With him on the island are a cast of eccentrics and quirky officials: Kershaw, the man in charge of the UN protectorate mission, assisted by a scary Ukrainian named Pechorin. The Witch, a beautiful American woman doctor with some unconventional remedies. Beneseffe, the Portmaster, who might have dealings with the Black Fleet. Dr. Inoue, the ultra-smart, very wry Japanese female researcher in charge of studying the Cloud Discharges. Shola, a native, owner of the best bar in town. White Raoul, a scribe with magical abilities. Like a Devil’s Island colony, or "White Mischief" enclave, they rely on each other for company amusement, and profit, in a tangled web.
And then there’s the Boy. No name but the jokingly applied one of Robin, after Batman’s partner. A resourceful guttersnipe, Robin is besotted with comics and video games, computers and movies. His English is a unique pidgin, his body scrawny, his mind sharp. His existence speaks directly to Lester’s heart, and they have formed a bond. Can Lester possibly rescue him before the big blow-up and/or exodus? Will the proudly independent kid submit to being rescued? Army regulations never covered this.
Before Lester can possibly help Robin, he and the boy will have to survive an accelerating cascade of murderous attacks, riots, drug smuggling snafus, storms, and firefights. And to deal with all this, Lester will become Tigerman, the superhero of Robin’s dreams. Kitted out with stuff from the consular armory; a magical shield inscribed by White Raoul, and a bedizened gas mask invented by Robin, Lester Ferris will discover that the superhero life is rather to his fancy — except when it promises to kill him.
There have been a spate of SF novels recently that incorporate the tropes and riffs of comics into their prose narratives. "Tigerman" is both part of this pack and not part of it. The comic book motifs, while expertly rendered (Harkaway knows his "Invisibles" from his "Transmetropolitan"), are ultimately a convenient vehicle for Lester’s heroism. Great fun, but rather makeshift and even a little arbitrary. The conceits and clichés are winked at by the characters rather than fully endorsed. Not that any campy irony intrudes either. But if things had gone down differently, say, Lester might have dressed as a knight or a cowboy and served the plot just as well.
What is central to the book is Lester’s sense of duty — to his country, to Mancreu, to his friends, to himself, and to Robin, probably in that ascending order. Through subtle, sharp touches and back-story details, Harkaway builds up a portrait of Lester’s nature that is insightful and deep. This is a fully rounded man you would go out of your way to meet. Likewise, though necessarily with more plot-driven opacity, Robin is conjured up off the page, as are the subsidiary cast. The dialogue — especially between Kershaw and Lester, and Dr. Inoue and Lester — is scintillating.
And of course Lester’s longing for Robin as adopted son, to fill out a life whose emptiness he never previously realized, is the draft horse of the tale. His half-understood emotions propel every action, right up till the unforeseeable end.
All of this highly affecting and effective material is conveyed in a prose that owes something to Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and other plainspoken poets of the dark actions of the principled loner hero. There’s a kind of actinic, merciless, partly mocking self-awareness in Lester’s pronouncements and understandings of himself and others: “There came a time with any unconsummated desire of whatever sort when you simply had to speak up or let it go.” Neal Stephenson exhibits something of this angle of attack as well. In another era, we might have assigned this voice to Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart. It’s the eternal Lancelot mode, and Harkaway has it down by heart.
Just before everything goes pear-shaped for Lester and Robin, the boy tries to tell his hero how great he is. Harkaway delivers the metaphor in his narrator’s paraphrase of Robin’s voice:
"If Pippa Middleton and Megan Fox had announced their intention to marry during a live theatrical production of '50 Shades of Grey' starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and then taken off their clothes to reveal their bodies tattooed with the text of the eighth Harry Potter novel, they might just have approached this level of frenzy."
That’s a pretty good summation of the greatness of this book.