If you love the work of William Overgard, it can be very emotional, very hard going to read this book. Overgard died last year, and this, his third novel, is the last one we're going to get. Especially now, when the world is so gray and dim and self-important and humorless; when deaths from the war are mounting up, when leaders and followers on both sides are hypnotized by the dull violence of death, injuries, heartbreak; when we can't turn on the television without being both horrified and bored by yet another "expert," now is when we need William Overgard, alive, goofy, savage and irreverent.
Overgard had a different idea about war. He recognized it for lunacy and saw there was nothing to do but laugh. He saw war as the great male opportunity to \o7 preen\f7 ; to strut, to joke, to look spiffy and to kill. The word \o7 democracy \f7 might have made him sigh. (Or at least the way our politicians currently debase that sacred word.)
Three books! Each one more savage, more precious than the last. "Shanghai Tango" burst on the reader like 24 Anna Mae Wong movies rolled into one, with a little of Andre Malraux's "Man's Fate" thrown in. In that raffish, lovely, stylish book, the individual served, not as the pawn of society, but as its master. Whole revolutions unfolded so that adventurous men could have a bit of fun--and style. Style was all. How often do you find a book that perfectly picks up the need for an impeccable silk suit and a pellucid Panama hat, the crazy (unrequited) Occidental love for the Orient, a skewed point of view that puts the whole human race into a cosmic comic strip? Where beauty, for women, is everything, and strength, for men, is everything, but far beyond either one of these, carefree courage totally rules?
"A Few Good Men" took as its subject a particularly tawdry chapter in American life, one of the many times we sent Marines to forage and pillage in turn-of-the-century Central America. High explosives! A cast of fearless thousands! Innumerable trains derailed! Silly jokes at every turn! The whole world of the book seen in sun-filled, gutted warehouses, millions of dust-motes floating, and bullets spurting from antique machine guns, and, over bloody mountains of dead bodies, every fictional character having a delicious, marvelous time.
Then Overgard sold "The Man From Raffles." It was to be part of a two-or-three-book deal. I spoke to him once on the phone (called him, as a stranger, because I was his raving fan). He was cautiously optimistic. "It looks like people are finally getting the idea of what I'm trying to do," he said.
Then he died. And now comes "The Man From Raffles."
You have to be a reader who loves the idea of an immaculate silk or linen suit. It would be nice if you loved the word \o7 Singapore, \f7 loved the sound of it on your tongue; have daydreamed of the old Raffles Hotel, and drinking Singapore Slings in the Old Kipling Bar. Nice if you loved the idea of the tropics. Nice if you still--in the face of our numbing and depressing technological wars--held on to dark enticing ideas of dangerous jungle life, of long houses in Borneo, of Highlanders with filed teeth, natives whose weapon of choice is still the blowgun, and whose dwelling of choice is the top of tall trees.
Nice if you still believed in cheery girl-adventurers who hop in the sack for the friendly fun of it; believed in heroes with pale blue stars tattooed on their ears, whose muscles are hard as iron, and who are never too tired to make a silly pun; nice if you brooked ethereal beauties with clouds of blond hair, and cannibalism and head hunters and cartons of a dubious soft drink called Yoo Hoo, and horrid little caterpillars that burrow into soft flesh; a fictional place where darts from those blowguns flash by and people are fluent in Malay, and a totally whacked-out Singaporean Chinese musician named Cool Luke Han honks on his saxophone to frighten the head hunters, and our handsome hero, Lawrence Slinng (whose father allegedly managed the old Raffles Hotel during World War II) kills and kills again, but remains honest and straight and raffish and true.
The last Overgard book! Who else will there ever be, with the guts to see us at our most ignorant and savage, and still have the pure affection, the large-heartedness, to see the joke behind the blood, the wonderfulness of humans, even at their very worst?
Next: \o7 John Wilkes reviews "Exploring Space" by William F. Burrows (Random House).\f7