I admit it: I only made it halfway through this one before giving up. The concept is promising: Tom, Brodzinski, a tourist, visiting a fictional tropical country with strict anti-smoking laws, decides to kick the habit. Unable to find an ashtray in which to stub out his last cig, he tosses it off the balcony of his hotel room. Complications ensue when it lands on an elderly man, burning his scalp badly enough to send him to the hospital and eventually kill him. To make things worse, the victim is married to a young woman from one of several tribes of natives of the country. This brings harsh and bizarre tribal law into the mix when determining the restitution that Tom must pay the victim’s family.
From there, the story descends into a black comic combo of Kafka’s The Trial and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Tom has to make a trek deep into the country’s interior to present the man’s in-laws with guns, cooking pots, and $10,000, accompanied by another criminal on a similar mission. I couldn’t summon up the wherewithal to continue — the descriptions of nearly-dead road kill, sickening local cuisine, and a bed full of cockroaches were just a little too vivid for me. Readers with a less active gag reflex than mine might find the satire worth the intermittent bouts of nausea. I felt like less of a wimp when I found a scathing review by David Kelly in the New York Times Book Review. Here’s an excerpt:
“My satire,” Self told The Guardian in March, “is about getting people to think.” That’s half the point of satire, and the other half is getting them to laugh. Self wrote some smart, funny novels and stories in the ’90s — “My Idea of Fun,” “Great Apes,” “Flytopia,” “Caring, Sharing” — but lately he’s been inducing smirks. It’s probably just a coincidence that he gave up alcohol and drugs (not tobacco) a decade ago. Admirable, to be sure, but we’ve all known people who weren’t nearly as amusing once they cleaned up their act.
author photo: Martin Godwin