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One man's paradise lost in Africa

A genteel spy who can't resist the temptation to say too much

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In 1991, when he was 58, Norman Rush wrote his first novel, "Mating," and won the National Book Award. Now, just when he was looking like another of America's great single-novel authors, comes "Mortals," a 700-page detonation of talent that threatens to incinerate competitors for miles around. As an investigator of marital relations, he upstages Updike; as a critic of political hypocrisy, he has more wrath than Roth.

With a breathless intensity that's both dazzling and exhausting, the story focuses on the fertile mind of an English teacher in Botswana. Ray is an American, a Milton scholar, a happily married man, and a spy with the CIA. He knows the agency is "organized guile," but by carefully parsing moral lines, he manages to feel proud of its success against the Soviet Union, while distancing himself from that "unpleasantness" in Angola, Nicaragua, and elsewhere.

"He wasn't a thug," he protests. "In fact he took pride in the certainty that he had never directly injured anyone in all his years in intelligence, not once, directly. He sees himself as a provider of truths."

We meet Ray just as the legs of his elegant life are buckling. At work, he confronts a new spy boss, the aptly named Mr. Boyle, who conducts terse meetings in a dim, soundproof closet. At home, charming repartee is under assault too. For 17 years, Ray has been married to Iris, a beautiful, younger woman who finds his connection to the CIA increasingly intolerable. Despite how desperately he loves her - think Othello, pale - depression is casting a dark shadow over her mind, inspiring a smattering of "declarations of dissatisfaction."

"It was unfair," Ray whines to himself, "that something was going wrong with her just at the moment you might say all the moving parts in the machinery of his life were in order."

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