Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Book Review | Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

Lester Ferris, sergeant of the British Army, is a good man in need of a rest. He's spent a lot of his life being shot at, and Afghanistan was the last stop on his road to exhaustion. He has no family, he's nearly forty and burned out and about to be retired.

The island of Mancreu is the ideal place for Lester to serve out his time. It's a former British colony in legal limbo, soon to be destroyed because of its very special version of toxic pollution—a down-at-heel, mildly larcenous backwater. Of course, that also makes Mancreu perfect for shady business, hence the Black Fleet of illicit ships lurking in the bay: listening stations, offshore hospitals, money laundering operations, drug factories and deniable torture centres. None of which should be a problem, because Lester's brief is to sit tight and turn a blind eye.

But Lester Ferris has made a friend: a brilliant, internet-addled street kid with a comicbook fixation who will need a home when the island dies—who might, Lester hopes, become an adopted son. Now, as Mancreu's small society tumbles into violence, the boy needs Lester to be more than just an observer.

In the name of paternal love, Lester Ferris will do almost anything. And he's a soldier with a knack for bad places: "almost anything" could be a very great deal—even becoming some sort of hero. But this is Mancreu, and everything here is upside down. Just exactly what sort of hero will the boy need?


I don't doubt that it's difficult to be different, but Nick Harkaway makes it look obscenely easy. In just two books, he's made such a mark on the landscape of imagination that his legions of readers will come to Tigerman bearing certain expectations: of an endlessly energetic narrative that streaks about like something stung, complete with a cacophony of lively characters and replete with ideas which bleed bananas.

This isn't exactly that... but it is undeniably of the award-winning author's oeuvre.

Whereas The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker were noisy novels, with ninjas and ass-kicking grannies, mad monks and clockwork killers, Tigerman, by comparison, is quiet. Being the origin story of a superhero and his sidekick, it's not silent, not entirely, but it is... stealthy, yes. Sneaky, even. All in all a much softer, sweeter and more surprising something than I had imagined.

Burned out by the hardships of sergeanting in Afghanistan, Lester Ferris, the book's Bruce Wayne, has withdrawn from the world. His superiors haven't fired him, however; he's been sent, instead, to an island shaped like the silhouette of a seagull to while away the rest of his service.

Mancreu is a former British colony in legal limbo that people have been Leaving for years—and for good reason, because beneath the bedrock, a powder keg of protean pollution persists. It's blown before, kicking out chemicals that have caused some strange and doubly dangerous behaviours, and scientists insist it could go off again at any moment. To make matters worse, the world wants nothing to do with Mancreu. Damningly, it's been disowned, the better for it to be destroyed by one of the warships gathered around the island without declaring war in the process.

When the time comes, Mancreu's residents realise, their home will be no more. Some of said are content to live out their last days on the island as if nothing untoward is going on; others are inspired by the inevitability of the end of everything to do whatever they desire, leading to a wave of wickedness which culminates in the killing of an innocent in a quiet cafe.

Lester's there that day, and his only real friend is as well: a powerfully clever kid with a crush on comics who our "bobby on the beat" (p.280) hopes to adopt at some point, and save from this place in the process. To date, his business as Brevet-Consul has been basic at best—to "walk, take tea, and say hello" (p.5) to the locals—but everything changes when the boy's safety is endangered. To his eternal regret, Lester can't stop the killing, however he does catch the killers, by improvising an explosive device using custard powder and a can.

His young friend is devastated by the death, but also impressed by Lester's strength under pressure. Thereafter the boy begins to imagine our man a kind of crime-fighter, which description the Sergeant initially resists. "He did not understand the business of superheroing at all. He knew it as a thing to be admired and as a brief diversion in childhood, but he had never considered it for what it was or how it might actually be done, or even what it might mean if one did." (p.146)

Naturally, Lester is having none of it. Then the boy is beaten for no good reason by a mob that means the men and women of the island ill, and though many of them stand steadfast by Mancreu's mantra—"kswah swah," meaning "what happens, happens" (p.17)—Lester is unwilling to accept this refusal of responsibility. Something must be done, he decides, and in truth, who else is going to do it?

The French? Forget it.

The Dutch? He has his doubts.

NatProMan? No.

To wit, Lester takes on the mantle of Tigerman; first and foremost to save some souls, but to win over his friend as well:
"To be a father you're going to put on a mask and be a monster?"
"A hero."
"Oh, sure."
"Once, one time. To show him a win. A world where sometimes someone does fix it. Doesn't just walk away. Doesn't just sit and stare into space, and give up, and die by inches."
"For a son you ain't got."
"But that's not funny!" White Raoul shrieked abruptly. (p.154)
Oh, but it is! Abundantly funny, in fact. And incredibly moving, too. For all that Tigerman seems to be about a superhero on the surface, appearances are deceiving indeed: Harkaway is markedly more interested in the relationship between Lester and his as yet unidentified friend; in the development of a bond between them that goes beyond the sharing of a space.

The makings of a boring book for die hard action fans, perhaps, but in Harkaway's hands, this friendship is as gripping as any mystery. The minor mistakes Lester makes lead to situations as exhilarating as any explosion: strained exchanges that inspire in the reader hope and fear equally because these characters care so very much about one another, much as we've come to care about them thanks to the author's pitch perfect depiction of the pair.

Both are broken—Lester by the war; the boy by a secret he keeps—but in one another's company they are... better. Happier. More human. I had my heart set on a happy ending for them more than the whole of Mancreu, in truth. Tigerman reminded me of The Road in that regard, by way of Unbreakable because of its affectionate service to superheroes, not to mention its terrific twist.

I can conceive of no better summation of Nick Harkaway's wonderful new novel than the repurposed words of Lester's sort-of-son on grasping his would-be father's plan to become something more than a man:
"It was made and designed by the House of Awesome, from materials found in the deep awesome mines of Awesometania and it would be recorded in the Annals of Awesome—and nowhere else, because any other book would catch fire and explode from the awesome—and by its awesomeness it would be known from now until the crack of doom." (p.137)
If there's any justice in the genre, Tigerman will be as well. It is, in short, awesome. Read it immediately.


by Nick Harkaway

UK Publication: May 2014, William Heinemann
US Publication: July 2014, Knopf

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