by Steven Gillis
Black Lawrence Press ($20.95)
Steven Gillis calls his novel Temporary People a fable, and that it surely is (although I kept looking for the talking animals and was disappointed not to find them). It’s a cautionary tale about power and corruption. It also seems to be saying something about the modern obsession with reality entertainment, although on that point its message isn’t quite as clear to me.
The story is set on the fictional island nation of Bamerita, ruled for the moment by Teddy Lamb, a film-obsessed former actor who has turned the country into a movie set and pressed all citizens into labor as extras. That’s not the end of his excesses and eccentricities, though, and some among the population are unhappy with the way things are going. Included among them is Andre Mafante, a Ghandi-quoting insurance salesman. As the rumblings of unrest grow louder, Mafante urges non-violence and, as befits such a prophet, gets jailed for his trouble. And then things get complicated.
It’s an engaging, fast moving story. I might have preferred having more background of the country in which it’s set—a land of, apparently, frequent revolutions—but that need eventually recedes as the story takes off. Some of the characters verge on stereotype—the American consul comes to mind—but others are more unusual, such as Emilo, Mafante’s friend who sews his eyes, mouth and ears shut. The first half of the book is told from Mafante’s point of view, while the second half, in which the action speeds up dramatically, cycles through various points of view including Mafante, his daughter, and her boyfriend. Those shifts may be unsettling, but given the plot choices the author is making are probably necessary. (Mafante’s in prison, so how else to show the reader what’s going on outside?)
While the book on the whole is intriguing and enjoyable, especially because of the character of Mafante, I’m compelled to voice my complaint about a couple of technical matters, including errors that go beyond the typographical (there are those, too). I suspect the casual reader won’t notice these things, and I’m sure it says something about my own character that they bother me. But they do.
Still, I’m glad I read the book and spent some time thinking about what it had to say.