Interior by Justin Cartwright (Random House: $17.95; 244 pages)
A well-behaved young Adventure Story was just putting on his pith helmet when three shadowy figures crept up to him in the dining room (breaded lamb chops and custards) of the colonial-vintage Brannigann Hotel in the imaginary African country of Banguniland.
"You're mine," mumbled the ghost of Joseph Conrad.
"You're mine," yawned the ghost of Graham Greene. (Yes, I know he's still alive, but never mind.)
"You're mine," thundered the ghost of Evelyn Waugh.
"If you fellows are through," said Justin Cartwright from a nearby table, "could I borrow him for a bit?"
Quest Into Deep Africa
"Interiors" is like the morning after a late-night argument that never got settled, and, amid broken furniture and bottles, simmers on. It is a Conradian quest into deep Africa, a Greene-like wrestle over sexual and philosophical unease, a Waughian skit on the foolishness of Africans and whites, with a well-meaning wimp and a man-eating woman thrown in. It is also, as has been said, a story.
Cartwright's story tells of an irresolute and put-upon young man who comes to Banguniland to investigate the last days in the life of his father, a writer-adventurer who apparently drowned on an expedition into the hinterland years earlier. He is co-opted by a rebel movement that casually comes to power partway along. The former rebels, now the government, assist him into the hill country with a cheerful Welsh bush pilot.
By the end, the young man has come upon his father's mummy, adorned in gold and sitting on a sacred prayer stool. Instead of drowning, he had been rescued by the Orefeo--a hill-tribe sect with vague Israelite leanings--and kept, much against his will, as one of their shamans.
It is a nicely variegated story except that it is waylaid almost from the start. The father, for example, was a restless effervescent man who successfully edited a small South African paper, joined the U.S. Navy, and then teamed up with a eccentric woman explorer bent on investigating the Orefeo for the National Geographic magazine.
The father changed his last name to Curtiz, ostensibly because of his admiration for the Hollywood director of that name. In fact, it is in order to let Cartwright have a Bangunilander sidle up to the son early on and tell him: "Mr. Curtiz--he is alive."
So much for Conrad and Kurtz and "Heart of Darkness." The son, who is also the narrator, is on a second, non-father quest. After each page or two of his African adventuring we get another page or two of his thoughts about his past. Most of all, these thoughts are about his stormy life with Magda, his free-sprited, insatiable sexpot of a wife.
There is a kind of metaphysical guilt and anguish in the narrator's account of Magda. Despite the immense quantity of his talk about her, though, he fails to say anything very interesting concerning the mysteries of obsession and sex, nor does he manage to make her interesting in herself. She is strictly a one-note femme fatale; this one note sounds over and over, interrupting the story's other themes with an insistent dreary tooting.
If there is a suggestion of Greene here, there is very much of a Waugh-like note to the narrator's whole marital plight. An innocent young man is perpetually hornswoggled by a predatory wife to whom he rallies whenever she needs him. There is more Waugh in the notion of Curtiz held as unwilling shaman, of course; we think of the protagonist of "Handful of Dust" ending his life reading Dickens to a local potentate in the Brazilian jungle.
Waughest of all are Cartwright's Africans, with their sudden transformations, their ambiguity, and the mix of cleverness and racially tinged caricature with which the author handles them. Patrick, who leads the rebels, is at once a leftist, a hereditary Paramount chief, and a connoisseur of the good life of the West. He favors flared trousers.
His brother, Frederick, who first appears as a cheerfully obsequious local tout, reappears as the Saville-Row-suited foreign minister. There is also an explosive old colonial type who erupts periodically into the story.
Cartwright entirely lacks Waugh's economy, those cold, comical ellipses in whose silence we hear anguish and defeat. The author of "Interiors" or, rather, his narrator, is never elliptical. His talkiness never defines him, except perhaps as a man without qualities, other than a few modern and sometimes post-modern literary references.
He is as pale and cloudy as a cataract; he looms into our vision and turns everything we might otherwise see into an undifferentiated milkiness.