on the page magazine

issue no. 1, winter 2000–2001
outsiders & community


The Good, the Bad, and the Freaks:
on the trail of drug peddlers in africa and zen killers in brooklyn

a look at recent novels by John le Carré and Jonathan Lethem
by Vera Djordjevich

The Constant Gardener
Motherless Brooklyn

As we follow the spy case against FBI agent Robert Hanssen, John le Carré's name frequently pops up. His works of fiction provide a frame of reference for this real-life story of deceit and betrayal. Le Carré's tales of Cold War espionage are not only classics of the genre, but the best of them are also moving novels that combine a stirring plot, well-paced suspense, and fascinating characters. Unfortunately, John le Carré's latest book, The Constant Gardener, is not one of his best.

I happened to pick up Jonathan Lethem's 1999 novel, Motherless Brooklyn, just after finishing The Constant Gardener, and was struck by the contrast: the freshness and humor of the one highlighted the clichés and earnestness of the other. Both authors play with type and genre conventions—Lethem with the film-noir/Raymond Chandler-style detective story and le Carré with the bigger-and-more-beautiful-than-life types of international thrillers. The heroes in both novels are at once insiders and outsiders, characters living on the fringes of small, self-protective communities, and each loses to murder the person closest to him. But where le Carré seems to have rummaged around in his closet for stock characters to populate his novel, Lethem has taken what could have been mere cartoonish figures and turned them into real people in whose stories the reader is fully engaged.

death of a do-gooder

The end of the Cold War signaled a change in the traditional East-West spy drama. John le Carré successfully entered this new era with stories that extend beyond the battle between London and Moscow to topical hotspots around the globe, including the mountains of the Caucasus, the Canal Zone of Panama, and now, the AIDS-stricken continent of Africa. The influence of le Carré's fiction is apparently so great that, according to The Washington Post, Kenyan booksellers fear to stock his latest novel, which paints the nation's politics in colors of corruption, fraud, and neglect.

By night his interior world reclaimed him, as it had every night since Tessa's death. ... He had never supposed that his search would have a good end. It had never occurred to him that there could be one. To take up Tessa's mission—to shoulder her banner and put on her courage—was purpose enough for him. She had witnessed a monstrous injustice and gone out to fight it. Too late, he too had witnessed it. Her fight was his.
              ~ The Constant Gardener

The Constant Gardener opens in the office of the British High Commission in Nairobi with news that Tessa Quayle, the beautiful young wife of a mid-level diplomat has been murdered in the desert. Her driver has been butchered; and her handsome Congolese companion, colleague, and rumored lover, Dr. Arnold Bluhm, has disappeared. We quickly learn that in the course of their relief work in the Nairobi slums, Tessa and Dr. Bluhm had uncovered humanitarian abuses that could prove embarrassing to both the British and the host government as well as the agencies involved.

Tessa's sudden death rouses her stoic husband Justin from his garden-puttering complacency, and the career diplomat goes undercover in order to learn who murdered his wife and why. In his quest, which takes Justin across three continents, he encounters a pair of long-legged scientists working on a miracle cure for a deadly disease, a pharmaceutical agent driven by the twin gods of Profit and Charity, and a multinational conglomerate eager to break into the Third World drug market.

The Constant Gardener displays some of the trademark le Carré ingredients, including a quietly able hero and a slew of shallow, officious embassy types: the ambitious Sandy Woodrow, his fawning wife Gloria, the London Head of Personnel who wears a thin pretense of mourning and keeps "a cardigan over the back of [her chair] so you didn't sit in it by mistake." Le Carré's portrait of the British in post-colonial Kenya is both credible and scathing.

Tessa is less a person than a movie producer's fantasy: Mother Teresa, as played by Angelina Jolie in a see-through dress.

Where the novel falters is in its heavy-handed depiction of heroes, villains, and the noble cause. The author's usual cast of complex, multi-dimensional characters seems to have been replaced by a few simply sketched stars of impossible glitter who, for the most part, remain flat on the page. The main characters have attributes—beauty, wealth, grace, purity of motive—but little life. The good folks are painted as martyrs in diaphanous white, the villains drawn crudely in black. Although le Carré throws in a few mixed-up mediocrities who could have been compelling characters, they remain undeveloped.

The central figure of Tessa is particularly disappointing. This white martyr for black Africa is the "most beautiful woman in Nairobi," irresistible to men, adored by women and children, fearlessly and single-mindedly devoted to the welfare of the African people. Even immediately after the death of her infant son, the "marble whiteness of her skin" and "flawless" breasts make her husband's colleague practically drool with lust. And fortunately for the still-handsome but older Justin, like "many beautiful young women he had known, she was sick of the sight of men her own age."

When she dies, her servants are inconsolable, her befuddled admirers stumble and fall, her husband talks to her ghost, and Ghita, her young protegée, prostrates herself on the grave. Grateful African women lament the loss of their "Mama Tessa." The idolatry is both extreme and uncomfortable. Tessa is less a person than a movie producer's fantasy: Mother Teresa, as played by Angelina Jolie in a see-through dress.

It doesn't help that, dead or not, Tessa's presence hovers over nearly every page: in the sexual fantasies of Woodrow, the shallow Foreign Office bureaucrat; in the worshipful emulation of Tessa's Anglo-Indian friend, Ghita, the "second most beautiful woman in Nairobi"; in the documents her husband discovers in his search; and in the imaginary conversations Justin holds with his wife as he pieces together the last days of her life.

These last become especially tiresome; they reveal little about either character but merely crank up the height of Tessa's pedestal. Although his wife's death stirs Justin from complacency into activism, it seems to be less from conviction than out of grief and a sense of guilt—she is dead, she was good, he failed to help her, so now he must complete the work for which she died. Admirable perhaps, but not necessarily personally engaging to the reader. Even Justin's gardening seems a mere throwaway trait, an unlikely hobby to attach to a dashing, middle-aged man, convenient to represent his perceived uselessness but invisible for the better part of the novel.

Le Carré can coast for a while on the tricks of the spy trade and his lampooning of the greedy, corrupt, and shallow, but the heavy-handed polemics and hero-worship take their toll.

elements of suspense

The distance between reader and hero decreases once Justin begins his journey in earnest, when we get caught more in the intrigue that imperils his own life than in his lament for the dead Tessa. These portions of the novel make for some exciting reading, and there are passages that evoke the best of le Carré, as when Justin waits alone in a hotel room in Germany:

Reaching his room, he tore the offending page from his notebook, then the page beneath it because the imprint had come through. He burned them in the hand basin and put on the extractor to get rid of the smoke. He lay on his bed wondering what spies did to kill time. He dozed and was woken by his phone. He lifted the receiver and remembered to say, "Atkinson." It was the housekeeper, "checking," she said. Excuse her, please. Checking what, for God's sake? But spies don't ask those questions aloud. They don't make themselves conspicuous. Spies lie on white beds in gray towns and wait.

Le Carré can coast for a while on the tricks of the spy trade and his lampooning of the greedy, corrupt, and shallow, but the heavy-handed polemics and hero-worship take their toll. And the story suffers a serious loss of momentum midway through the novel, when the reader has little doubt who killed Tessa and why. Moreover, for a story that takes place largely in Kenya, has at its heart the well-being of the African people, and ostensibly has a secondary hero in the noble Dr. Bluhm, the novel is overwhelmingly white and the African characters among the least developed.

The most interesting characters in the novel are those who struggle, at least momentarily, against type, like the complicated drug agent Markus Lorbeer who longs to be "a rich saint." Even Woodrow actually has moments of self-awareness and self-disgust. Indeed, his pathetic lust for Tessa and incredibly inept attempt to hide his obsession made me warm a little to him. A self-centered fool, certainly, but a vulnerable one for all that. Justin's vulnerability is limited to a guilt that seems misplaced, and the reader never doubts that the man with the "golden voice" will do his wife's ghost proud.

Ultimately, I was more stimulated by the traces of old-fashioned tradecraft than by the personal odyssey of Justin, and my involvement with the story remained a fairly superficial interest in plot and an abstract sympathy for the hapless victims of corporate greed. Le Carré's shifting points of view raise the question of whether it might have been a better story had he remained perched on Woodrow's shoulder, in hopes of witnessing some development of nascent conscience, rather than trailing the eminently noble Justin in his quest for the truth.

a murder in manhattan

Meanwhile, with his questions Tony was telling me more than I was telling him: Danny and Gilbert weren't with him in the Park Avenue caper. Yes, this Hardly Boy was still on the case.

"So it's just you," Tony said. "You're the jerk I've gotta deal with. You're Sam Spade."

"When someone kills your partner you're supposed to do something about it," I said.

"Minna wasn't your partner. He was your sponsor, Freakshow. He was Jerry Lewis, and you were the thing in the wheelchair."
                  ~ Motherless Brooklyn

Like The Constant Gardener, Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn opens with a murder: Private detective Frank Minna is killed during what his colleagues assumed was a fairly routine stakeout on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Two of his employees, Lionel Essrog and Gilbert Coney, arrive in time to see him die. The murder is puzzling enough, but then Minna's wife skips town after she gets the news, Gilbert is arrested for another murder, and a third member of Minna's agency seems awfully eager to step into Frank's shoes. Acting on an enigmatic clue left by the dying man, Lionel sets out to solve the crime himself.

His investigation—which leads him to a Zen center in Manhattan, a couple of old Brooklyn Mafiosi, a group of Japanese businessmen, a jaded homicide cop, an oddly friendly young woman, and a Polish giant—is complicated by the fact that Lionel has never actually done any detecting on his own. Oh, and he also has Tourette's Syndrome.

Led by this twitching, ticcing narrator, the antithesis of the coolly confident private eye, Lethem weaves conventional stereotypes and oddball elements into a witty, moving, and original novel.

orphans and oddballs

These are flawed characters, Lionel not the least of them. Their gaffes, bumblings, and barbs are related with sympathy and humor. Lionel himself is winning from the start, his breathless patter seductive:

In this diminished form the words rush out of the cornucopia of my brain to course over the surface of the world, tickling reality like fingers on piano keys. Caressing, nudging. They're an invisible army on a peacekeeping mission, a peaceable horde. ... Everywhere they're smoothing down imperfections, putting hairs in place, putting ducks in a row, replacing divots. Counting and polishing the silver. Patting old ladies gently on the behind, eliciting a giggle. Only—here's the rub—when they find too much perfection, when the surface is already buffed smooth, the ducks already orderly, the old ladies complacent, then my little army rebels, breaks into the stores. ... That's when it comes, the urge to shout in the church, the nursery, the crowded movie house. It's an itch at first. Inconsequential. But that itch is soon a torrent behind a straining dam. Noah's flood. That itch is my whole life. Here it comes now. Cover your ears. Build an ark.

"Eat me!" I scream.

Lionel is the butt of others' jokes, his compulsive tics and twitches the easy target for their anger and frustration. There is both humor and pathos in his symptoms and in his fumbling relationship with a woman he meets during his investigation.

Brooklyn itself is more than a backdrop to Lethem's novel; it's a rich setting that breathes with life.

As for the murder victim, Frank Minna is no martyr or Mother Teresa. He is a low-level mobster, a bigot, and a bit of a bully. He takes four boys, including the teenaged Lionel, from their orphanage, puts them to work in his corner of Brooklyn and teaches them the trade of being a small-time crook. When Frank later decides to open a detective agency, these boys become the Minna Men.

As much father as employer to his men, he blends casual cruelty with affection, crudeness with sensitivity, a swagger that barely conceals an underlying unhappiness. The effect is a fully imagined and even sympathetic character.

"It's not that I only like women with large breasts," he told me once.... "Thing is, for me a woman has to have a certain amount of muffling, you know what I mean? Something between you, in the way of insulation. Otherwise, you're right up against her naked soul."

Just as Justin feels Tessa opened him to a world of conscience and idealism, Minna has expanded the possibilities for Lionel and his fellow orphans; in opening the doors of the St. Vincent's Home for Boys, he has offered the boys a new identity, "a certain collective ego." As one of the Minna Men, Lionel also gains some relief from the isolating world of his own affliction.

Which isn't to say that Minna is much kinder to Lionel than his former classmates. But there is a kind of love and longing in their relationship that's both funny and poignant:

"Garden State Bricco and Stuckface!"

I'd made Minna laugh again. Like a lover, I loved to make Minna laugh.

"Yeah," he said. "That's good. Call them Bricco and Stuckface, you goddamn beautiful freak."

Brooklyn itself is more than a backdrop to Lethem's novel; it's a rich setting that breathes with life:

Minna's Court Street was the old Brooklyn, a placid ageless surface alive underneath with talk, with deals and casual insults, a neighborhood political machine with pizzeria and butcher-shop bosses and unwritten rules everywhere. All was talk except for what mattered most, which were unspoken understandings.

In life, Minna had given Lionel a home, a job and a family of sorts. His death forces Lionel to venture beyond the safety of Court Street, to forge an identity greater than merely one of the Minna Men. He is a self-described "freakshow chasing a context." If the plot becomes a little unwieldy, and a few characters stay on this side of caricature, these are small quibbles over a novel that, in the end, is as touching as it is entertaining.

beyond black and white

Mystery fans will enjoy Motherless Brooklyn for its well-crafted and engaging detective story. But Lethem's playfulness with language and convention and, especially, his creation of unusual, vivid characters ensure a much wider audience. The novel, which won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, is now available in paperback. Lethem’s earlier works, which include five novels and a collection of short stories, also play with genre. His first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music, melds hard-boiled mystery with science fiction, and other books like Girl in Landscape and As She Climbed Across the Table also combine the fantastic and the absurd. Motherless Brooklyn was my introduction to this witty, original writer, and I anticipate reading Lethem’s other works with pleasure.

Short, fat and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like a skin on a shrunken toad. Sawley, in fact, declared at the wedding that "Sercomb was mated to a bullfrog in a sou'wester." ...

Was he rich or poor, peasant or priest? Where had she got him from? The incongruity of the match was emphasised by Lady Ann's undoubted beauty, its mystery stimulated by the disproportion between the man and his bride. But gossip must see its characters in black and white, equip them with sins and motives easily conveyed in the shorthand of conversation.
                                ~ Call for the Dead

As for le Carré, the bigger-than-life, black-and-white figures of The Constant Gardener made me long for the shades of gray that color le Carré's best novels, including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Looking Glass War, and Smiley's People. Admirers will probably read his latest novel no matter what reviewers write, and he is a strong enough writer that they will find something worthwhile even in his less satisfying work. To those unfamiliar with le Carre's writing, skip The Constant Gardener and start with the brilliant Call for the Dead, where you'll meet George Smiley: pudgy, spectacled, scholarly, and the ultimate spy.

Vera Djordjevich is an editor at On the Page.

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