Monday, March 01, 2010

Fiction: A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta by Paul Theroux

Literary heavyweight and the writer most often accused of single-handedly changing the way the world anticipates travel writing, Paul Theroux delivers another engaging work of fiction with A Dead Hand. Like all of this author’s work, A Dead Hand is infused with moments of pure beauty. Theroux has that gift and is never shy about sharing it: he’s a wonderful writer. Images and characterizations and places seem to jump out at us from the pages of just about anything he writes.

This time out, we’re spending time with hack travel writer Jerry Delfont. Jerry is in Calcutta doing literary mercenary work while trying to repair his dead hand. Jerry has writer’s block and nothing he’s tried has gotten anything at all moving.

Then he gets a beautiful letter. It’s written “on classy Indian handmade stationary, flecks of oatmeal in its weave and reddish threads like blood spatter, with assertive handwriting in purple ink.”

The author of the letter is one Merrill Unger. She turns out to be a sexy American philanthropist who has written to Jerry to see if he will help her unravel a personal mystery involving her son’s friend. As Jerry tries to help Mrs. Unger get to the bottom of the matter, he finds himself drawn towards her in moth-to-flame style.

While all of this sounds somewhat like the set-up for a mystery novel, the mystery here is a distant runner-up to Theroux’s explorations of creativity, obsession and desire. The story is engaging enough, though not without flaw. The implied mystery is thin and a little contrived and it’s possible he pushes the idea of mystery a little too far in a book that is not in itself all that mysterious but that is, however, at times completely beautiful.
My mouth was dry from having uttered the little girl’s name. I lay on the hard mattress, in the dusty air, in the smell of the midlewed carpet, the chipped paint on the chairs, the scratched varnish on the desk, the accumulated fur on the wardrobe mirror… Even in the darkeness, the room was warm with decay, every item of furtniute giving off its distinctive smell, and with all that there was the insistent stink of the street. The whole of Calcutta lay hot and ripe against my face.
In the end, it’s important to surrender. A Dead Hand will not be the book you expect, in any case. So let go and immerse yourself in Theorux’s rich voice and the journey he has in store for you. A Dead Hand is not an important book, but it’s a wonderful trip in great company. For this reader, that was enough.



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