Strong novelist and provocative short-story writer, William Harrison has claimed Africa as a major point of reference in five of his novels. His vision of the place has depicted both contemporary and historical elements, and commanded respect in both, as exemplified by the critical praise for Savannah Blue (1981) and Burton and Speke (1982), to mention only two of his seven previous novels. Fine movies have also been made from Harrison’s work, including the legendary Rollerball (from his 1974 story “Roller Ball Murder”) and The Mountains of the Moon, the latter taken from Burton and Speke, a novel that chronicles the nineteenth-century race to find the source of the Nile. His new work, The Blood Latitudes, cries for a movie treatment, too. Its settings include both city and jungle, and its fiercely compelling drama sustains a consistency of characterization that is as believable as it is interesting.
Numerous writers have turned to exotic, dark places as metaphors for the tensions between man and nature, but Harrison does not lose himself in muddy abstraction, as have a number of myth-oriented writers. Instead, though the political geography of his explosive setting may seem at times melodramatic, he presents it with a voice that is as compelling in its restraint as it is authentic in its details. Master writers before him, from Conrad to Hemingway, have done much the same, though in different voices.
The protagonist of The Blood Latitudes is a recently retired journalist named Will Hobbs. A widower who, like many busy fathers, has often missed connections with his son, he lives in London, in ambiguous exile from his native America. His wandering has made him familiar with many places but sentimental about few. Through his late English wife Rennie, he has moved in the circles of uppercrust London society, a world that neither dazzled him nor turned him contemptuous. In fact, it’s Will Hobbs’ lack of defensiveness that sets him apart from numerous protagonists and demonstrates, yet again, Harrison’s novelistic authority. Harrison never lets Hobbs drift into cliché or fade into stereotype. In fact, we become increasingly intimate with the tensions between the several layers of Hobbs’ character. Neither perfect nor pretentious, the man steers clear of monomania.
Throughout the story, the turns of adventure are both internal and external. Curiously restrained in sensibility, Hobbs, though never barbaric, is rarely inclined to turn introspective, but he sees the world in terms of relationships: self in tension with other. As Harrison’s fiction (most recently his 1998 story collection, The Buddha In Malibu) has often shown, external reality is rich with texture and capable of dangerous drama.
Will’s son Buck has gone to Africa, not to redeem himself in his father’s eyes but to capture stories. Reports come from that revolution-ravaged world that Buck may have been murdered. Instead of torturing the story and reader with psychologically baroque turns of mind, Harrison presents the father as parent: a man hell-bent on rescuing his son if he can. Will sets out to find Buck, but refuses to let his son’s lovely wife Key accompany him – not out of chauvinism, but from a sense of mission: a complex undertaking that includes Will’s realization of his own limits.
Will himself has known betrayal, but he resists the impulse to return pain for pain. In an intense series of scenes, Harrison shows us his protagonist living on the edges of clarity and breakage, and the drama is high. There is no telling where the heart’s anarchy might lead him and the frazzled fighters he meets.
In spite of being a loner, Will Hobbs is different from that semi-solitary type embodied in so much American fiction. He’s a fine cook, a talent that comes to surprising and practical use when his life is threatened by some of the most callous figures of recent fiction. At the same time, the novel recognizes the horror of a world that turns children into bloodlusting activists. Hobbs’ sense of separateness, then, enables us to see the pain and the waste that comes when the centers of worlds collapse, yet without arrogance or condescension. A warrior named Papa Ngiza (who had studied theology in America) tells Will, “And the death squads of this continent ‘so distasteful to you’ will ultimately do more good in history than you can imagine.”
A lesser writer might have closed with that troubling thought. But Harrison, even from the beginning of his long career, has thought on levels deeper than those offered by slick adventure and glib horror. His protagonist here moves beyond the reactive vision of Papa Ngiza. It’s not that he becomes a moralist; Harrison’s orientation is too realistic to let matters slide into such simplicity. Instead, he reiterates what he has prepared us for earlier: an endearingly domestic side of Will Hobbs. The man has known the darker dimensions of the world, but he also knows how to cook a fine plate of eggs for the grandson who carries his name. And he also knows how to talk with the fatherless boy. Page after page, Harrison’s new novel achieves immediacy.
James Hoggard’s articles on Cuba won this year’s Stanley Walker Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. His most recent books are the novel Trotter Ross, Medea In Taos & Other Poems, and, in translation, Stolen Verses & Other Poems by Oscar Hahn.