For the first few dozen pages of Nick Harkaway’s excellent third novel, the life of the main character — a middle-aged English veteran named Lester Ferris but referred as “The Sergeant” — is not unlike that of the Consul in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, albeit with a few less gallons per day of mescal.
The Sergeant is the ranking British presence on the island of Mancreau, a fictive island of Arab, African and Asian culture that still bears the markings of a history of disputed colonialism. The handful of apologetic and well-meaning Europeans that such a history entails are still wandering about. The international community, though, has marked the island for destruction, due to its nasty and recently acquired habit of emitting “discharge clouds” of pollution that wreak genetic mischief on flora and fauna.
With Mancreau’s days numbered, all the Sergeant has to do is occasionally be seen strutting about Britishly in uniform, which affords him plenty of time to drink, box in the local gym and bond with a local comic-book obsessed boy in whom he has taken a paternal interest. (He himself is unmarried, childless and pushing 40.)
But then, a plot descends: a band of armed men assault the Sergeant’s favorite bar and spray the place with gunfire, wounding several and killing his good friend, bartender and erstwhile sparring partner, Shola. The Sergeant incapacitates the bandits using initiative and some cursory knowledge about the explosive properties of custard powder. But divining their motivation proves difficult when they won’t talk. It’s harder still after a missile from the black-market ships that laze in the harbor obliterates the make-shift jail in which they’re held.
In order to sort out this web of deceit, obtain a measure of revenge and potentially gain the adoptive parentage of the boy, the Sergeant must don a menacing mask and adopt the persona of Tigerman, equipped with a surfeit of gadgets and weapons, including an assortment of gas grenades and his trusty “sharkpunch,” a device something like a primed shotgun shell at the end of a stick. (In the tradition of Batman and many other of the boy’s comic book heroes, conventional guns are eschewed.) Before finding the monster at the middle of this maze, Tigerman must endure all manner of physical trial, emotional intrigue and a pitchfork-toting mob or two.
Harkaway writes with such a wonderful mix of humor, erudition, sensitivity and appreciation for a good bit of decidedly English fun that a coherent argument against the book can scarcely be imagined. The plot, in which twists abound, is as interesting as any number of successful thrillers. But what will really make fans of out of readers is Harkaway’s facility with the brand of English wit that American audiences line up for, in which duress is met with smiling irony and the disappointment inherent in the loss of empire is pushed to the margins by the responsibility to make the best of what’s left.
Here we see Ferris shoulder the weight of his charge after Shola offers him a potent local concoction: “The Sergeant declined the drink with thanks, though part of him very much wanted to accept. A strange, Victorian specter dangled over him: the image of a fat, hirsute colonial administrator taking to the local drugs and losing his mind, running naked through the streets.”
An Englishman is perhaps the only national figure who can find a quintessence outside of the borders of his own country, in over his head in a strange land that he has been told somehow figures in affairs at home. In The Sergeant, Harkaway has given us a perfect rendition of such a figure. This fantastic book deserves to be widely read and long remembered.
Nicholas Mancusi is a writer in New York.