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In February 1984 Darcy Bright finds himself in a train station. An Australian painter, he is on his way from St. Kilda via Prague to Moscow to deliver to his half-sister a money belt she has had sent to him. Though she has warned him to be discreet, he blithely takes photographs everywhere and then engages without a thought in a quick sexual encounter with a soldier in the station’s toilet. All too soon he will discover that he should have heeded her warnings. For in Moscow he will have his passport taken away and incriminating photographs used against him in order to force him to set up a figure of political interest for sexual blackmail. He also, later, discovers that he has become unknowingly implicated in the Armenian situation in Turkey. It does not help his position that he and his principal guard, Aurelio Sarfin, a has-been Cuban Russian dancer, have a dangerous love affair. No one is safe in the dark, conniving world into which Darcy has fallen at just the moment the Soviet government is changing hands. Innocence counts for nothing: “Only in a world without evil are the naïve devoid of guilt.”
As the flap of the dust jacket asserts, the author is exploring not the usual world of the spy thriller but “Graham Greene territory.” Despite horrific scenes of murder and torture, the novel remains at heart a psychological study of the main character. The second chapter takes us back to Australia in fall 1972, and from then on we weave between various years in Darcy’s past and present. Events from his childhood are as important to the plot as the balancing act he is half-heartedly performing in Moscow. The reader discovers that Darcy comes from a dysfunctional family. His mother was an alcoholic and his father a philander. Fin, his half-sister, is also his first cousin. The two children formed a secret world that Darcy still holds onto with an intensity that amounts to psychic incest. The reader also learns that in 1969, at age nine, he had been used by an American claiming to be a Mormon missionary (curiously traveling alone) for sexual release. As a consequence of these legacies Darcy has turned passive aggressiveness into a way of life.
The novel’s language is sensuous, musical, a joy to read. Scenes are deftly set up with concrete immediacy. Tension builds unrelentingly. I can understand why The Advocate listed the novel as its number one pick of 2008 books. For me, however, the work fails to move into the truly extraordinary by not delivering the moment I was fully expecting: an epiphany in which Darcy gains some insight into how this present agony relates to his entire life and what it all means. After so much torture, I’m not satisfied to leave a character hanging in stasis “between a deathless, boundless infinity and the transient mortality below.” I want some kind of cathartic resolution. I thoroughly enjoyed each individual piece of the puzzle (there are forty-five unnumbered chapters), but I finished uncertain how they fit together. Still, it is a book that can be recommended to a wide variety of readers.
STRAY DOG WINTER
MacAdams/Cage / $24.00
Hardcover, 329 pp.