I admit to entering Nick Harkaway’s 2014 Tigerman with some trepidation. For as enjoyable as his first two novels The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker are, the enjoyment is namely found in the off-the-wall usage of the English language and gonzo plotting. Little of sub-textual note, the ninjas and clockwork devices, Mad Max truckers and nefarious world-takeover schemes keep the stories pulp at heart, meaning each must be tackled rather than eased into. Thus looking ahead to his third novel, I had built up a store of energy to be ready to turn the first page. It turns out preparation for Tigerman (2014) was unnecessary; it’s as refined an offering as Harkaway has produced to date.
To say Tigerman is the novel I’ve been waiting for Harkaway to write would be to put too strong a spin on things. To say that it is his most focused, relevant novel to date hits much closer to the point. The language less dynamic but still tugging at the reins, Tigerman is Graham Greene on steroids. Delicately balancing socio-political concerns with a story by turns warm-hearted and exciting, Harkaway creates a superhero motif with his right hand while flipping it on its head and examining it against a backdrop of post-colonialism with his left.
Mild-mannered Lester Ferris is a sergeant stationed on a backwater, former British colony, Mancreu. Life on the island is a mix of expatriates and locals, and on the surface of things is relatively peaceful for Ferris. His job is easy, he has the opportunity to box at the local club, he has drinks with a local café owner, and he befriends a local boy with a passion for comic books—a passion that comes out charmingly in his patois. The island is experiencing some geologic instability and is surrounded by a fleet of ships nobody pays much attention to. But real trouble for Ferris begins when a group of local men murder an acquaintance. Essentially British embassy, consul, army, police, and general representative all rolled into one, Ferris finds himself attempting to get to the bottom of the murder. Funny thing is, the boy has some interesting ideas how Ferris might go about solving the crime.
Where The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker were rooted in fun characters found only in fiction, Tigerman has both feet on the ground; it’s impossible for any reader not to sympathize with Ferris’ situation or understand the boy’s life circumstances. The tide of the two’s relationship is the main pivot point of the story, and thus while their political compasses may not always point in the same direction, their humanity does.
This comparison/contrast is captured nicely in the cover image (who is the hero, and who the victim?), and goes some distance to describe the aforementioned socio-political undercurrents of the novel. With relatively significant foreign presence on Mancreu (the Americans, the French, the Japanese, Ukrainians, NATO, and others), Tigerman is set on a deliberately fictional, non-European island such that it can be made to stand in for the majority of tensions occupying the the West and its former colonies in our real world. Military occupation, wealth discrepancies, culture clashes, terrorism, resource dependencies—a load of contemporary issues delicately influence Ferris’ story. The sturdy sergeant’s personal story occupies the forefront, but certainly any reader even remotely aware of the current global state of affairs will recognize his larger socio-political environment, and all the tension that comes with life in a former European colony. Ferris and the boy’s relationship strikes chords in the heart, whereas the larger situation they are caught in strikes chords of real-world social and political relevancy.
Perhaps one of the most commendable aspects of Tigerman is Harkaway’s avoidance of noir sentimentalism, particularly in his main character. Where there was every opportunity (the murder investigation, the lonely foreign island, the isolated male character, the superhero tie-in) for Ferris to be presented as the classic cynical, brooding, nihilistic, distanced investigator, Harkaway moves in another direction. Ferris is a realistic character, and how the superhero trope is put to use, interestingly, only makes him moreso.
In the end, Tigerman is Harkaway’s most pertinent, affective novel to date. Readers looking for more of The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker may walk away disappointed that the author did not fully utilize his excited-puppy approach to language and story, while readers hoping for him to apply what are prodigious writerly skills to something more ambitious no longer have to wait. A very personal story about a man trying to deal with the politicized/globalized situation he finds himself in, there remains a major political undercurrent flowing through the story. Harkaway’s story thus holds much more in common with the literary approach to superheroes (e.g. Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) than the genre approach (e.g. Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century or Alan Moore’s Watchmen), and comes recommended as such.