But here in Tigerman, (even with a title like that) Harkaway has shown us an altogether different side. Tigerman is detailed but not excruciatingly so, emotional but never maudlin, full of questions but never irritating, and ultimately, emotionally satisfying instead of leaving you with a sense of being socked in the eye with the author's own brilliance.
The story is set on the fictional island of Mancreu, doomed because it is set for destruction by the international community due to a series of continual environmental disasters. (But in fact, "for an island with no future, Mancreau had a great deal of present.") Our hero, Lester Ferris, is a British sergeant posted there as his country's somewhat token presence, mainly to show his face around town and maintain the peace. And there's the boy, a local with whom the Sergeant has struck up a tentative yet tender friendship. What Lester wants, and this he realizes as the island nears its own expiration date and people keep leaving as planned, is to adopt the boy since there is no real knowledge of other family. Still, the situation is vague and the best Lester can do is make discreet inquiries as to the boy's situation.
Mancreu's coast also has another shadowy presence: the Black Fleet comprised of illicit ships harbored there for nefarious purposes, but which cannot be dealt with because of the island's peculiar legal limbo situation. So who is Tigerman? He's the persona that Lester takes on, egged on by the comic-book-crazed boy. He's a sort of unlikely crime-fighter against the local mysterious wrongdoings, the hero who remains unknown yet takes on an almost mythic persona to the islanders.
Against the uncertain political and environmental background, this is ultimately a story of friendship, fatherhood, betrayal and survival instinct, told finely with such detail that you know, really know, each character. Harkaway's intricate drawing out of his characters' motivations reminded me of other writers like Lionel Shriver, Mary Doria Russell, or Alan Hollinghurst, in that patient, humorous yet achingly tender way.
And the prose! "Sainte Roseline was a proud stone building held in the crook of a small river. The waters rolled and gurgled from the foot of the mountain to the western shore without ever joining the hasty torrent beneath the Iron Bridge, content to take their time. The same patience hung on the old chapel itself, as if time within the cemetery gates was honeyed and heavy. Bees buzzed and flowers grew up tall around cracked old headstones. The graves here were not tended in the formal sense; the Mancreu people who interred their dead here saw no shame in life springing up from the site of burial."
On the nature of parenthood, the Sergeant muses, "To do the job right was something else, older and different and patient and endlessly enduring, something which got stronger the more it was clawed and scratched, which bounded and uplifted and waited delightedly to be surpassed. Which knew and understood and did not shy away from the understanding that there would be pain. Which could accept shattering, could reassemble itself, could stand taller than before." This is what I mean by teasing out the innermost workings of his characters' hearts, this effortless and meditative style which impressed me the most. I mean, that has to be the most noble description of parenthood I've ever read...
This is a book I'd like to own. High praise indeed, are you listening, Harkaway, because I've long since lost the desire to own anything I read. I have the entire L.A. public library at my disposal and am always reading and returning books like a fiend, so when I do feel this desire it's rather rare.