Norman Rush is something of an oddity in the world of American letters, a world that sometimes seems to be populated solely by wunderkinder and eminences grises. Born in 1933, Rush worked as a teacher and a rare-books dealer and did a stint with the Peace Corps in Africa before he finally published his first novel, Mating, in 1991. It promptly won the National Book Award. Rush then resumed his silence (and maintained his 1.000 batting average). Now, 12 years later, we have the remarkable Mortals (Knopf; 715 pages), which gives us the late-blooming Rush as challenging and surprising and uncompromising as ever.
Ray Finch, our hero, is an American who teaches at a private school in Botswana. At 48 he is a contented man, even a little self-satisfied, but who could blame him? He's a literary scholar, in a modest way, and ardently married to Iris, who is beautiful, sexy, 10 years younger--and bored out of her mind in Botswana. Her unhappiness eats away at Ray's sense of self-worth, as does her increasingly close epistolary friendship with Ray's gay, witty younger brother Rex, from whom he is estranged. This could all be the stuff of a fairly ordinary midlife crisis, albeit in an exotic setting, except for two things. One, the tender, funny eloquence with which Rush sketches Ray's distress. And two, the fact that Ray is actually a secret agent.
That's right: Ray works for the CIA gathering information about local political operatives, in particular a brilliant, charismatic local doctor. (Poor, hot and ravaged by AIDS, Rush's Botswana practically vibrates with political instability.) This isn't just a whim on the author's part: Mortals comes with the whole special-ops toy chest, including secret signals, micro-recorders, coded transmissions and even a violent and extended mission into the bush. This could have the effect of cleaving the novel into two incompatible halves--a portrait of a marriage and a political thriller--but Rush merges the two successfully and somewhat shockingly, when the doctor who is the target of Ray's surveillance becomes Iris' psychiatrist, neatly short-circuiting Ray's heretofore hermetically separate identities and violently abolishing his sense of certainty in every truth he ever relied on.
In all his identities Ray is an obsessive interpreter: he relentlessly decodes everything he sees and hears, whether it's a surveillance tape, Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach or a chance remark by his wife. "You turn into a kind of crouched thing, a crouched listening beast," the anguished Iris tells him, "listening for what everything I say might mean, beyond the simple thing I said itself." To watch Ray come up against the limits of his ability to make his life--his lives--make sense is moving; it's difficult to think of a more convincing depiction of the intimacy that prevails between married people and of the secrets they keep from each other in spite of that intimacy. Near the end of Mortals Ray ruefully reflects, "He had been an actor in a different play than the one he had thought he was in." What he learns is that we all have secret identities, and sometimes we keep that secret even from ourselves. --By Lev Grossman