Tigerman, the third book I’ve read by Nick Harkaway (after The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker), sneaks up on you a bit. The dynamite opening sentence (“On the steps of the old mission house, the sergeant sat with the boy who called himself Robin, and watched a pigeon being swallowed by a pelican,”) may lead you to believe that this will be a book about small things, small relationships and people, the small island of Mancreu, and watching the events of this small world unfold. But in fact, Tigerman demonstrates the way the largest of human acts — postcolonialism, environmental ravages, the global drug trade, political corruption of every stripe — are (not just linked to, but are) those small human things. This is a book at large, and at small.
Mancreu is a tiny island in the Arabian Sea which has been environmentally destroyed by its colonizers. Chemical waste pumped into its underground caverns met magma rising from an earthquake, and new, terrible, unpredictable substances were born, substances that changed every moment and that were discharged in clouds over the island, damaging every living thing. The world’s decision, and that of the NATO and Allied Protection Force on Mancreu (NatProMan — right, I know), is that Mancreu has to be destroyed, burned to the waterline and below, so that these clouds of toxins won’t float to other islands and atolls and spread the devilry someone else brought to the island in the first place. In the meantime, there are a few islanders left, waiting for the end; there is a team of Japanese xenobiologists; there is NatProMan, with its Russians and Americans; there is The Fleet, a flotilla of boats off the shore of Mancreu doing dark, corrupt, invisible deeds in neutral waters; and there is Lester Ferris, representing the British government that used to be in charge of Mancreu.
Lester is a middle-aged sergeant whose time in combat — most recently in Afghanistan — has brought him to this “soft” position on Mancreu, where all he has to do is watch the place until it dies. He doesn’t expect to form any friendships, and especially not with a twelve-year-old boy who talks in mad pop culture references, but being a sergeant predisposes him to it:
Rank made you a little bit stranger, but also gave you new roles to fill: uncle, nursemaid, gaffer, big brother, pastor, best mate and headmaster — that was a sergeant. One thing you never were was short of conversation.
Part of Lester’s job is just this sort of conversation, wandering around the island and generating trust at a time when everything is falling apart. In this way, he gathers information — and we get a sense of Lester himself, as well.
It was just that when someone here decided to Leave, they invited someone who was staying a little longer and whose home was not as nice to come and live in their house. Someone old, of course, because the young people might ruin it.
“But that will happen anyway, in the end,” the Sergeant observed.
“That’s no reason to invite it,” the dealer said. “Young people,” and this clearly included the Sergeant himself, “young people never understand. The last days are no less important than the others just because they are near to the end.” He nodded at his friends. “Should we stop living today just because death is no longer a stranger? Should we go naked because our clothes no longer fit as well as they did?”
“I should say not!” said the woman with the broom. “No one wants to see your horrible bottom!”
At first, it looks as if Lester and the boy will live out the rest of Mancreu’s life in relative peace, and the biggest question will be whether Lester can navigate his delicate relationship with the boy: he wants to give him a home after Mancreu’s inevitable destruction, but what if the boy already has parents? He doesn’t want to bruise the boy’s dignity or question his self-sufficiency while he holds the power in the relationship. Lester’s careful management of their friendship — he doesn’t quite dare say love — is a microcosm of the consequences of the damage done to Mancreu, and just that might have been enough for an excellent novel.
But an unexpected murder launches this relationship into high gear, and Lester begins to live up to the boy’s expectations for him. The island, too, seems to choose him, when he goes into the cemetery to grieve his friend:
He turned around into a completely alien intelligence, a huge soup-plate face with wide, reflective eyes. They were not yellow or green but a scalding platinum. He smelled meat and musk, tasted it in the air.
The tiger blinked. It was enormous.
Lester — reluctantly, and then seriously, even grimly — takes on the role of a superhero (I told you about the boy’s pop culture references) and becomes Tigerman, the spirit of heroic vengeance and justice that the boy, and perhaps Mancreu, have needed. The boy is everywhere on the island, Lester’s eyes and ears, and they become partners in the Tigerman endeavor. As Lester learns more, his care and concern for the boy grow, and he reaches out at the apocalyptic end of a small place to protect a small person, and to become the person he himself was meant to be.
Gradually, however, it becomes clear that the large roles of superhero and supervillain, like the large concerns of the Fleet and of postcolonialism and of environmental destruction, are made up of the same small concerns of human beings, day by day, step by small cunning step. Nick Harkaway tells us, in the end, about fathers and sons. He tells us about what we are willing to do for those we love. He tells us that sometimes even when we are willing to sacrifice everything for our loved ones, it doesn’t work out the way we’d planned, no matter how hard we try. Yet relationships — one-on-one, knowing the names of each person — are the only possible way out of a mess like the one on Mancreu, no matter how vulnerable that makes us, no matter how great the possibility that we may fail.
This book, like Harkaway’s others, is fast-paced, very funny, ferociously intelligent, and packed full of references that I often didn’t catch because I didn’t want to wait long enough to let it simmer. There’s a two-page-long treatise on British humor that I wish I could quote here, because it made me laugh so much, and made me hum with resonance. Harkaway’s books are so cleverly written that I finish them and want to begin them again; he lays clues that don’t look like clues until you’re done, and then you realize how much you could have seen if only you’d known. He is scrupulously fair with the reader, but there’s so much going on in his novels that it all streams by in a torrent. Tigerman is more tightly-plotted than his first two books, which has its pros and cons; there aren’t ninjas and pirates and killer bees as digressions, but everything that looks like a digression is actually a hammerstroke for the final resolution. This is a brilliant, beautiful book, large and small and funny and serious. I recommend everything I’ve ever read by Harkaway, and this, this, this.