Illustration: Snow © Alexander Colville 1969
NORMAN RUSH WAS BORN in San Francisco in 1933 and didn't publish his first book, Whites, until 1986, when he was 53. That collection of short stories was followed five years later by his National Book Award-winning novel Mating. In 2003 he published Mortals, his second novel. All three books are set in and around Botswana, where Rush and his wife, muse, and faithful editor, Elsa, were co-country directors for the Peace Corps from 1978-1983.
Ann Close, Rush's editor at Knopf, told me she met the Rushes at a dinner hosted by the late poet and science fiction writer Tom Disch. When she got home that evening, she dug through her stack of New Yorker magazines and found his recently published story "Bruns," told in the distinctive voice of a lapsed anthropologist, a white woman in Botswana, a story which appeared in the April 4, 1983 issue and opens Whites. Close calls "Bruns" a perfect short story, and her enthusiasm for the author's work led her to broker a two-book deal with his agent, Andrew Wylie. She considers reading Mating, in which the narrator of "Bruns" reappears, one of the best experiences of her life.
Rush began to write full-time in 1984, but until then he supported himself and his family as a teacher and rare books dealer. In a 1995 essay, he speaks of his commitment to writing "serious fiction," fiction where "we are able to enter disarmed and to open ourselves to the healthy subversions produced by the truth told excessively and beautifully and from vantage points different from our own and different from one another." He counts among his influences Rabelais, Balzac, Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Lawrence, and Joyce. While Rush's politics are left-leaning (he spent nine months in prison in the fifties for conscientious objection to the Korean War), his writing cannot be reduced to ideology or a specific message, political or otherwise. His work is replete with acrobatic language, high comedy, characters navigating complex interior and exterior worlds, and plots that encompass the political and the personal.
Rush's third novel, Subtle Bodies, is scheduled for publication in spring 2013. Close says that Rush has promised her a book of 300 pages or so, considerably slimmer than the almost-500-page Mating and 700-plus-page Mortals. It is his first novel not set in Africa, taking place, rather, in the Catskill Mountains on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. It is a post-September 11th novel that Rush has contextualized in more than one interview thusly: If Mating is about courtship and Mortals is about marriage, then Subtle Bodies is about friendship. The following passage offers a preview; the two main characters are Nina and Ned; Nina is on the ovulatory stimulant Clomid and, in her campaign to conceive, has flown across the continent to be with Ned, who is preparing a memorial service for his oldest college friend, Doug:
They were getting ready for bed, at last. She needed more sleep than she was likely to get in the next few days but the problem was that around there it was like a novel. There were white spaces on the map of relationships she was figuring out.read more
He happened not to like the underpants she ...