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No Straight Line from A to B.

The Silver Hearted

by David McConnell

Alyson Books. 230 pages, $14.95

THIS IS a strange and marvelous bird of a novel. On its surface, The Silver Hearted is an adventure story that convincingly channels the classics of that genre. A layer below the surface ripples a sharp critique of colonial and post-colonial themes that go further than Conrad or Forster could have done. Deeper still, there lurks a dark and convincing novel of ideas--big ideas like truth and consciousness. Those big ideas and their delivery are McConnell's province alone. With so much at stake, McConnell takes a staggering risk with his unnamed and gloriously unreliable narrator, but the risk pays off brilliantly, as the reader's attention is so occupied with getting a bead on the protagonist's character and motivation that the big ideas insinuate themselves almost effortlessly. The experience of reading The Silver Hearted is, one imagines, a lot like the narrator's experience of its action--challenging, scary, uproarious, and redemptive.

In a prologue of sorts, the protagonist plummets from wealth to poverty upon the death of his parents. While he insists that his suddenly diminished circumstances are welcome and appears to embrace his poverty, the action of the novel turns on his efforts to preserve a fortune. That fortune is the single inescapable fact of The Silver Hearted. As a party to a questionably legitimate investment group, the protagonist turns up in a secondary city of a turbulent non-Western country in possession of 24 boxes of silver coin and charged with the task of returning the chests to the city of Z, where he was hired. Within pages, he has escaped a violent uprising with his chests intact and blood on his hands. There follows a premonitory river journey between the hinterland and the capital, which cannot help but remind us of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

By the time the riverboat Myrrha reaches the capital, McConnell has arrayed all the elements he needs for the protagonist's second labor, that of protecting his booty from a corrupt and ineffective government, a venal military, and a narrow array of predatory international economic agencies (not to mention the evidently parastatal corporate concern he represents). This capital, called "A" until the narrator arrives there with his treasure, could be almost anywhere along the periphery of the global system.

The plot of The Silver Hearted is related in spare, staccato bursts of surpassing loveliness or clinical grimness. An embattled chateau is "alarmed-looking," while nearly abandoned apartment blocks have a "drained-ocean dreaminess." Pieces of deck floating in the water look "as if someone sloppy had tried to lay a parquet on the sea." In contrast to these fanciful renderings of place, there is an aggressive naturalism to the dialogue, and McConnell's ear for the paralanguage of the different characters is evident early on. In a pivotal early scene, the protagonist and the riverboat captain who ferries him and his silver out of the city of B speak in the halting phrases of the morally conflicted as they try to decide whether to leave behind the narrator's cohorts and save themselves.

McConnell relates the protagonist's brief foray into the culture of the elite Mandarins with much more direct language, but arguably more clandestine purpose, than Forster in A Passage to India. (The Mandarins are so called not for their ethnicity or their occupational status but for their byzantine religion and cloistered ethnocentrism.) In the company of callow but connected journalist Carter van Loon, the narrator travels into the jungle to witness the ritual sacrifice of a red bird. In a departure from iconic colonial tales, the purpose (if not the ideological reason) for the hunt is clear even to outsiders, and when the event turns deadly, no one seems surprised.

In the first acts of the book, cities and countries are named only with initials. This deliberate coyness about locations--"the famous city of Z" or "the whip-lashed palms of B"--operates in contrast to the narrator's apparently ruthless self-awareness and unblinking self-disclosure. The same technique serves to befuddle the reader as to the geographic location of the story (the riverboat that carried the protagonist is reported to have come from Sudan, while both "Mandarins" and "Karak Indians" are named as indigenous). Although he never gives himself a name, the narrator is scrupulous about naming most of his "red shirts" and gives the reader detailed glimpses into their doomed minds before dispatching them. As the story progresses, the narrator's veracity is increasingly "out of true," a phrase he uses to describe much of what he observes and experiences, including his own actions and motivations. If the material world is out of true, how much more so is the emotional landscape. The more the narrator reveals about his own mistrust of others, the more the reader mistrusts the narrator himself. McConnell renders his protagonist's mistrust--and deftly manipulates the reader's--in dizzyingly elliptical moments like this one in which the narrator tries to decide how far to trust Topher, the protege of the grossly obese riverboat captain: "It did seem ludicrous to imagine scuffed, rough-around-the-edges Topher could be a preening hustler or a gold digger. But if there were any truth in it, his good humor made all his wiles forgivable--whether you wanted them to be or not."

The moral heart of the novel resides in its other enduring theme, the nature of consciousness. The narrator makes much of his ability to achieve a low level of consciousness, a state that permits a respite from logic, analysis, and strategy, but not from purposeful action. High states of consciousness are the default position and therefore unremarkable, while low states, he insists, are where the truth resides. The protagonist can spot this deep state in others and admires them for it with a kind of envy: if only the protagonist himself could sustain such a state, he could become untroubled by the silver and the deaths it has caused. Such admiration is at the heart of the protagonist's interest in Topher Ammidon Smith. Rather than sexual desire, which he observes at one remove, what the protagonist finds enrapturing is Topher's ability to "descend." With Topher at "the lowest level of existence," the protagonist experiments with the power he has over the much younger man. "I turned him to face me. He turned as easily as the window shutters. Gently I pushed him a step or two backward. I was frowning intently, as if I were a scientist, and this was the experiment my career depended on." What becomes clear is that this low level of existence is, for the narrator, a place of detachment from moral codes or compasses. In the book's climactic scene, the protagonist beats a man in a ritualized encounter that forces him to face his betrayal of his fellows back in B. In the aftermath, he questions his victim about his physical injuries: "Inside or surface?" It's an eerie echo of the many times throughout the story when he questions the state and quality of his own or someone else's consciousness.

When the insurrection that drove the narrator out of B finally threatens A., the protagonist must again try to escape with his cargo. It turns out his low-life connections like Topher prove effective, while interventions from more powerful friends, such as the journalist Van Loon, fall short or fail to materialize. In the end, his reckoning comes not from the natives, the government, or the military, but rather from the corporation. If not for that, it would be tempting to compare the novel's satisfying denouement to that of Moby-Dick: one last great effort in service of his master's obsession that leaves him alone in the water. With this final, transcendent scene, McConnell grants his narrator an ambiguous liberation that fixes him just out of true, so to speak, which is where all but the greatest truths--lie.

Gaelan Lee Benway, PhD, is associate professor of sociology at Qitinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Mass.
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Title Annotation:'The Silver Hearted' by David McConnell
Author:Benway, Gaelan Lee
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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