Legendary American xenophobia (or possibly indifference) to the world that exists beyond American shores is, with all deliberate speed, being eroded by the rise of a kind of hyphenate American literature. This has long been the case for writers with bonds below the Rio Grande and more recently with émigré Africans (Chris Albani, Chinanda Ngozi Adiche, Uzodinma Iweala’), and Southeast Asians and sub continentals (too numerous to mention), and now there is a rise in Middle Eastern surnames being published (Azar Nafisi, Mohja Kahf, Laila Lalami, Elmaz Abinader, Khaled Mattawa).
Naeem Murr (of Lebanese and Irish parentage) was born and raised in London and is the author of three novels: The Boy, The Genius of the Sea and now The Perfect Man, which, if these things mean anything to you, was awarded The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Best Book of Europe/South Asia, and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Murr, who teaches at Northwestern University, has also received, in addition to various and sundry awards, the imprimatur of the literary establishment, garnering a Stegner Fellowship, a Lannan Residency Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
In The Perfect Man, Murr places young Rajiv Travers in Pishgah, Missouri in the 1950’s. Rajiv was born in England, where he was left with an uncle and a fairytaleishly evil aunt. He is sent to stay with a second uncle in Pishgah, who commits suicide on the night of his arrival. Ruth Winter, the uncle’s mistress, who writes romance novels and phlegmatic asides about her neighbors in her private journals and is a bit of a cipher, elects to care for Rajiv. Smalltown America is a fine lens with which to view the strangeness that Rajiv encounters as well as that which he embodies. Rajiv, who is a sweet, alert and good-natured child, is soon befriended by four of his new-found peers–each of whom is clearly flawed, in an unintentional parody of Southern stereotypes. Nonetheless, this is an enchanting story, both coming of age and cultural barometer finely told.