Rush, Norman 1933-
RUSH, Norman 1933-
ADDRESSES: Agent—Andrew Wylie, Wylie, Aitken & Stone, Inc., 250 West 57th St., Suite 2114, New York, NY 10107.
CAREER: Part-time writer and dealer of antiquarian books, 1958-73; College instructor, 1978-83; full-time writer, 1983—.
MEMBER: PEN American Center.
AWARDS, HONORS: Short fiction selected for Best American Short Stories, 1971, 1984, and 1985; Paris Review Aga Khan Award, 1985, for "Instruments of Seduction"; New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, 1985; Grant from National Endowment for the Arts and finalist for American Book Award, both 1986, nominated for Pulitzer Prize and recipient of annual literary award from the Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, both 1987, all for Whites; Guggenheim fellowship, 1987; Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Residency, 1990; National Book Award for fiction, 1991, for Mating; National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award finalist, 1991; Aer Lingus/Irish Times International Fiction Prize, 1991; selected as one of 100 best books of the twentieth century by New York Times.
Whites: Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 1986.
Mating (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.
(With Philip Levine and Orlando Patterson), Earth, Stars, and Writers, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1992.
Mortals (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor of short stories to anthologies, including Best American Short Stories, and to periodicals, including New Yorker, Paris Review, Grand Street, and Massachusetts Review. Contributor of articles and reviews to periodicals, including New York Review of Books, New York Times Book Review, New Yorker, Nation, Transition, Village Voice, Grand Street, and Gentleman's Quarterly.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Subtle Bodies (novel).
SIDELIGHTS: In his highly acclaimed collection of six short stories, Whites, Norman Rush explores what Nation reviewer George Packer described as the "moral and spiritual quandaries of middle-class foreigners who happen to be stuck out in [the African country of] Botswana." While living in Botswana for five years as codirector of the Peace Corps, the author became familiar with the political and racial difficulties existing in a country bordering the controversial apartheid nation of South Africa. Herbert Mitgang quoted Rush in the New York Times: "'In these stories I concentrate on whites, especially American whites, as they define themselves against the contours of African life and encounter the limits and contradictions of the Western undertaking in that part of the world.'" The characters in Rush's "low-keyed yet forceful" stories exist under unique circumstances, explained Jonathan Yardley in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (review also published in Washington Post Book World), because for them "Africa is a place where the ordinary rules do not apply. They are in a country that is not their own, in a civilization they do not understand, cannot really connect to, and feel no obligation toward." As missionaries in a country plagued by drought and poverty, "they are at a distance … because they are white and because, of course, they can always go home."
With what Packer labeled "intricate structures and ironic themes," Rush presents a variety of situations involving sexual and power struggles, inequity, disillusionment, and political apathy. A story in the collection illustrating some responses of whites to the plight of Africans is "Near Pala." Two white couples driving through the desert discuss race; one of the women, Nan, is sensitive to racial injustice, the other is oblivious to it, and the men are obviously impatient with the issue. In a heated part of the conversation and in a particularly rough part of the journey, the group passes three African women and an infant pleading for water. Nan begs her husband, Gareth, to stop. When he doesn't, she frantically, though too late, throws their water bottle from the vehicle. Relating the author's message in this story, Yardley commented, "Rush has presented in Nan and Gareth opposing white attitudes toward Africa, and by placing them inside a single marriage has shown how intimately connected they are."
Another story—"Instruments of Seduction," which received the Aga Khan Fiction Prize after its original appearance in the Paris Review—depicts a middleaged American dentist's wife, Ione, in one episode of her secret career of seducing men. Ione believes that skillfully manipulated allusions to death and danger are erotic, and she finds the atmosphere of expatriate life in Botswana conducive to satisfying her desires. Assessing Ione's acclimation to Botswana's climate, Leslie Marmon Silko in the New York Times Book Review remarked that ironically Ione is one of few foreigners able "to grasp the possibilities for personal salvation Africa offers them despite all its contradictions and ugly colonial legacies…. She not only fashions a sense of self and identity that keeps her humanity intact, she also manages to realize how the terrifying atmosphere of Botswana can actually be used to deliver her from isolation and loneliness."
Ione also appears in the stories "Official Americans" and "Alone in Africa." In the former she persuades an American agency bureaucrat, Carl, to seek a local medicine man to cure him of insomnia caused by a neighbor's barking dog. When the prescribed witchcraft results in permanent injury to Carl, he is nevertheless overjoyed, believing that the price of white life in black Africa makes any cost a bargain. In "Alone in Africa" Ione's husband, Frank, is visited by the seductive young daughter of a neighbor's maid. Described by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times as "a perfect little sexual psychodrama," the story reveals Frank's weakness and propensity for self-delusion and delineates the girl's victory, achieved by her drive and cunning, as well as by her youth, strength, and poverty.
The remaining stories in the collection—"Bruns" and "Thieving"—render, according to Packer, a vision of political futility: "Simply put, any effort at change does more harm than good, though vanity and naivete will delude us into trying." In "Bruns" a Dutch pacifist volunteer is unable to free a tribe from its violent injustices and ends up killing himself out of revenge. And in "Thieving" a christianized African boy, Paul Ojang, interprets the various injustices and temptations to which he is subjected as comprehensible only if God desires that he, an honest boy, become a thief. Paul's effort to retain his personal integrity while satisfying God's injunction to steal is doomed to tragic failure.
Asserting that Rush is "a master at plot," Packer observed that "his stories often end with an ironic inversion on a nearly farcical chain of events that exposes the self-deception his characters use to detach themselves from any meaningful connection to other lives…. Their lack of conviction haunts them without initiating deep change." Critic Silko concurred: "The failure of American idealism and technical resources that Mr. Rush describes in these stories, and the subsequent disillusionment—both national and personal—are second only to the Vietnam War in their continuing impact on the direction of American foreign and domestic policy today."
Rush, in Whites, has been further hailed for not offering simplistic analyses of the political and economic crises in southern Africa. Silko, for example, stated that "Rush attempts to articulate what Americans or whites in general may be able to salvage where the legacies of apartheid and colonialism make it almost impossible to live and remain decent human beings." The author seems to be saying, Silko suggested, that "it isn't just whites who must face up to moral and political failures in the third world today." Deeming Rush "an effective political writer," Steve Katz in the American Book Review noted that the author "has the experience and talent to give us the political forces operating in the lives of ordinary, imperfect people." "If we are honest with ourselves," added the reviewer, "we have no trouble isolating the contradictions and ironies in the attitudes of Carl, Ione, Frank, etc., in our own hearts. We can be grateful to Norman Rush for identifying them with so much wit and compassion, so that the healing might begin."
Lehmann-Haupt noted minor difficulties in the conceptions and structures of Rush's stories, criticizing that "here and there, [Rush's] endings are a trifle abrupt or heavy-handed" and that "there are passages where the characters' behavior is psychologically fuzzy." He qualified those remarks, however, with the observation that the author may be doing this intentionally in order to heighten the unreal and hallucinatory feel of some of the stories. Comments like Katz's, though, were more common: "Whites is a terrific book, important for our understanding of white people in the world, particularly of the roles of whites in Botswana. Everyone should read it…. Rush is an extraordinary writer."
Rush's first novel, Mating, follows a young, female American anthropologist in Botswana as she sets out in search of Nelson Denoon, the American man who has set up a utopian society called Tsau, run by and for poor African women. Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote in the New Republic, "Mating is not a fairy tale or a chivalric romance. It's an extremely sophisticated dramatic monologue, one of whose many theses is that only a woman has heart enough to search for heroic love." Nation reviewer David Kaufman noted, "Although far from obvious at first, Mating is a satirical con of sorts, a delicious comedy of manners that toys with its all-wise narrator." Kaufman continued, Rush "emerges as a puppeteer pulling strings by inverting sexist roles, letting his readers draw the comparisons implicit in his characters' movements." A Publishers Weekly reviewer, "Even readers who remember the luminous stories in Rush's debut, Whites, may not be prepared for the cleverness, humor, insight into human nature, and intellectual acuity demonstrated in this accomplished novel."
Mortals, Rush's second novel is also set in Botswana. The book tells the story of Ray, a CIA agent who works undercover as a teacher. Ray is deeply in love with his beautiful wife, Iris, who is having an affair with Davis Morel, a black American holistic healer. Ray suspects that something is amiss in their relationship. His suspicions are confirmed when, during a mission for the CIA, he is caught and imprisoned with Morel, who speaks the truth about his relationship with Iris. A reviewer in the Economist noted, "At its heart, Mortals isn't about political intrigue, but a marriage…. . Mr. Rush is a master at parsing theseemingly casual exchange between true inmates. And although much of the novel is bitterly funny, he also captures the genuine agony of his cuckold." The reviewer also observed that Rush "has a canny understanding of Africa, a profound appreciation for the fine points of romantic love, a muscular style of description, and an eye for character so frighteningly sharp that it argues against running across the man at parties." A Publishers Weekly critic explained that Mortals is both a "textured, erotic portrait of a disintegrating marriage and a society in flux" and "a political thriller infused with violence." The same critic concluded that "the richness of Rush's vision," and his "stringent moral clarity, sweep the reader into his brilliantly observed world." A Kirkus Reviews writer pointed out that "Mortals isn't easy going," but felt that "Rush's authoritative grasp of his subject, rich characterizations, and complex handling of social issues of sexual and political fidelity, morality, and mortality make it a reading experience not to be missed." Writing in the New Republic, reviewer James Wood declared "Mortals to be many things, but said the book's central achievement has to be the fidelity with which it represents consciousness, the way in which it traces the mind's own language. This concern with the insides of our minds makes Rush almost an original in contemporary American writing."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 44, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
Africa Today, winter, 1993, Sheldon G. Weeks, review of Mating, p. 79.
American Book Review, March-April, 1987; December 1992, review of Mating, p. 15.
Antioch Review, summer, 1992, review of Mating, p. 594.
Booklist, July 1, 1991, review of Mating, p. 2012; January 15, 1992, review of Mating, p. 870; April 1, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of Mortals, p. 1355.
Economist, May 31, 2003, "Number One Detective Agent; New American Fiction," p. 84.
Esquire, September 1991, review of Mating, p. 68.
Fortune, May 26, 2003, Erik Torkells, review of Mortals, p. 178.
Guardian, September 12, 1993, review of Mating, p. 28; October 24, 1993, review of Whites, p. 28.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1991, review of Mating, p. 820; May 1, 2003, review of Mortals, p. 638.
Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide, November, 1992, review of Mating, p. 11.
Library Journal, September 1, 1991, review of Mating, p. 232; Barbara Hoffert, May 15, 2003, review of Mortals, p. 127.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 9, 1986.
Nation, May 24, 1986; November 18, 1991, David Kaufman, review of Mating, p. 638; December 30, 1991, review of Mating, p. 856; August 24, 1998, review of Mating, p. 25.
New Republic, December 23, 1991, Verlyn Klinkenborg, review of Mating, p. 44; June 23, 2003, James Wood, "Thinking," p. 34.
Newsweek, September 16, 1991, review of Mating, p. 62; October 21, 1991, review of Mating, p. 66.
New Yorker, October 21, 1991, review of Mating, p. 129; June 2, 2003, John Updike, "Botswana Blues," p. 97.
New York Review of Books, October 10, 1991, review of Mating, p. 33.
New York Times, February 27, 1986; April 19, 1986; September 12, 1991, review of Mating, p. C17.
New York Times Book Review, March 23, 1986; September 22, 1991, review of Mating, p. 3; October 11, 1992, review of Whites, p. 36.
Observer (London, England), November 22, 1992, review of Mating, p. 63; August 22, 1993, review of Mating, p. 48.
Partisan Review, February, 1992, review of Mating, p. 282.
Publishers Weekly, June 21, 1991, review of Mating, p. 52; November 1, 1991, review of Mating, p. 20; June 29, 1992, review of Mating, p. 58; April 21, 2003, review of Mortals, p. 35.
Time, July 7, 1986; January 6, 1992, review of Mating, p. 74.
Times Literary Supplement, September 18, 1992, review of Mating, p. 24.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), September 1, 1991, review of Mating, p. 1; December 8, 1991, review of Mating, p. 10; September 20, 1992, review of Mating, p. 2.
Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1992, review of Mating, p. 24.
Wall Street Journal, September 17, 1991, review of Mating, p. A14.
Washington Post Book World, March 23, 1986; September 8, 1991, review of Mating, p. 3.
World & I, November, 1991, review of Mating, p. 402.
Alfred A. Knopf Web site,http://www.randomhouse.com/knopf/ (November 5, 2003).
LA Weekly Online,http://www.laweekly.com/ (November 5, 2003), "Botswana Blues."
National Book Foundation Web site,http://www.nationalbook.org/ (November 5, 2003), "Interview with Norm Rush."
Newsday Online,http://www.newsday.com/ (November 5, 2003), Dan Cryer, "Puffs of Wind around an African Desert."
New York Magazine Online,http://www.newyorkmetro.com/ (May 26, 2003), John Homans, "Mortal Splendor."
New York Observer Online,http://www.observer.com/ (November 5, 2003), Jennifer Egan, "A Man Who Loves His Mate: Rush's Post-coital Comedy."
Time Online,http://www.time.com/ (November 5, 2003), Lev Grossman, "A Spy in the House of Love."