In 1988, with her collection The Middleman and Other Stories, Bharati Mukherjee became the first naturalized American citizen to win the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Now reissued with an introduction by Pushcart Prize winner Madhuri Vijay, these characters and their stories shed new light on an America increasingly defined by movement, transience, fragmentation, and reinvention. As Vijay writes in her introduction, these characters are “constantly on the move, constantly in flux, shifting between lovers, jobs, nations, apartments, or all four at the same time.” An aristocratic Filipina negotiates a new life for herself with an Atlanta investment banker. An Italian woman from New Jersey has an uncomfortable Thanksgiving when she brings her new Afghani boyfriend home to meet the family. And in the title story, an Iraqi Jew whose travels have ended in Queens suddenly finds himself an unwitting guerrilla in a South American jungle. Passionate, comic, violent, and tender, these stories draw us into the center of a cultural fusion, moments glowing with the energy and exuberance of a society remaking itself.
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About the Author
BHARATI MUKHERJEE (1940-2017) is the author of over a dozen books, short-story collections, and works of nonfiction. In 1988 she became the first naturalized American citizen to win the National Book Critics Circle award for her collection The Middleman and Other Stories.
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THERE are only two seasons in this country, the dusty and the wet. I already know the dusty and I'll get to know the wet. I've seen worse. I've seen Baghdad, Bombay, Queens — and now this moldering spread deep in Mayan country. Aztecs, Toltecs, mestizos, even some bashful whites with German accents. All that and a lot of Texans. I'll learn the ropes.
Forget the extradition order, I'm not a sinful man. I've listened to bad advice. I've placed my faith in dubious associates. My first American wife said, in the dog-eat-dog, Alfred, you're a beagle. My name is Alfie Judah, of the once-illustrious Smyrna, Aleppo, Baghdad — and now Flushing, Queens — Judahs.
I intend to make it back.
This place is owned by one Clovis T. Ransome. He reached here from Waco with fifteen million in petty cash hours ahead of a posse from the SEC. That doesn't buy much down here, a few thousand acres, residency papers and the right to swim with the sharks a few feet off the bottom. Me? I make a living from things that fall. The big fat belly of Clovis T. Ransome bobs above me like whale shit at high tide.
The president's name is Gutiérrez. Like everyone else he has enemies, right and left. He's on retainer from men like Ransome, from the contras, maybe from the Sandinistas as well.
The woman's name is Maria. She came with the ranch, or with the protection, no one knows.
President Gutiérrez's country has definite possibilities. All day I sit by the lime green swimming pool, sun-screened so I won't turn black, going through my routine of isometrics while Ransome's indios hack away the virgin forests. Their hate is intoxicating. They hate gringos — from which my darkness exempts me — even more than Gutiérrez. They hate in order to keep up their intensity. I hear a litany of presidents' names, Hollywood names, Detroit names — Carter, chop, Reagan, slash, Buick, thump — bounce off the vines as machetes clear the jungle greenness. We spoke a form of Spanish in my old Baghdad home. I always understand more than I let on.
In this season the air's so dry it could scratch your lungs. Bright-feathered birds screech, snakeskins glitter, as the jungle peels away. Iguanas the size of wallabies leap from behind macheted bushes. The pool is greener than the ocean waves, cloudy with chemicals that Ransome has trucked over the mountains. When toads fall in, the water blisters their skin. I've heard their cries.
Possibilities, oh, yes.
I must confess my weakness. It's women.
In the old Baghdad when I was young, we had the hots for blondes. We'd stroll up to the diplomatic enclaves just to look at women. Solly Nathan, cross-eyed Itzie, Naim, and me. Pinkish flesh could turn our blood to boiling lust. British matrons with freckled calves, painted toenails through thin-strapped sandals, the onset of varicose, the brassiness of prewar bleach jobs — all of that could thrill us like cleavage. We were twelve and already visiting whores during those hot Levantine lunch hours when our French masters intoned the rules of food, rest, and good digestion. We'd roll up our fried flat bread smeared with spicy potatoes, pool our change, and bargain with the daughters of washerwomen while our lips and fingers still glistened with succulent grease. But the only girls cheap enough for boys our age with unspecified urgencies were swamp Arabs from Basra and black girls from Baluchistan, the broken toys discarded by our older brothers.
Thank God those European women couldn't see us. It's comforting at times just to be a native, invisible to our masters. They were worthy of our lust. Local girls were for amusement only, a dark place to spend some time, like a video arcade.
"You chose a real bad time to come, Al," he says. He may have been born on the wrong side of Waco, but he's spent his adult life in tropical paradises playing God. "The rains'll be here soon, a day or two at most." He makes a whooping noise and drinks Jack Daniels from a flask.
"My options were limited." A modest provident fund I'd been maintaining for New Jersey judges was discovered. My fresh new citizenship is always in jeopardy. My dealings can't stand too much investigation.
"Bud and I can keep you from getting bored."
Bud Wilkins should be over in his pickup anytime now. Meanwhile, Ransome rubs Cutter over his face and neck. They're supposed to go deep-sea fishing today, though it looks to me as if he's dressed for the jungle. A wetted-down hand towel is tucked firmly under the back of his baseball cap. He's a Braves man. Bud ships him cassettes of all the Braves games. There are aspects of American life I came too late for and will never understand. It isn't love of the game, he told me last week. It's love of Ted Turner, the man.
His teams. His stations. His America's cup, his yachts, his network.
If he could clone himself after anyone in the world, he'd choose Ted Turner. Then he leaned close and told me his wife, Maria — once the mistress of Gutiérrez himself, as if I could miss her charms, or underestimate their price in a seller's market — told him she'd put out all night if he looked like Ted Turner. "Christ, Al, here I've got this setup and I gotta beg her for it!" There are things I can relate to, and a man in such agony is one of them. That was last week, and he was drunk and I was new on the scene. Now he snorts more JD and lets out a whoop.
"Wanna come fishing? Won't cost you extra, Al."
"Thanks, no," I say. "Too hot."
The only thing I like about Clovis Ransome is that he doesn't snicker when I, an Arab to some, an Indian to others, complain of the heat. Even dry heat I despise.
"Suit yourself," he says.
Why do I suspect he wants me along as a witness? I don't want any part of their schemes. Bud Wilkins got here first. He's entrenched, doing little things for many people, building up a fleet of trucks, of planes, of buses. Like Ari Onassis, he started small. That's the legitimate side. The rest of it is no secret. A man with cash and private planes can clear a fortune in Latin America. The story is Bud was exposed as a CIA agent, forced into public life and made to go semipublic with his arms deals and transfer fees.
"I don't mind you staying back, you know. She wants Bud."
I didn't notice Maria for the first days of my visit. She was here, but in the background. And she was dark, native, and I have my prejudices. But what can I say — is there deeper pleasure, a darker thrill than prejudice squarely faced, suppressed, fought against, and then slowly, secretively surrendered to?
Now I think a single word: adultery.
On cue, Maria floats toward us out of the green shadows. She's been swimming in the ocean, her hair is wet, her bigboned, dark-kinned body is streaked with sand. The talk is Maria was an aristocrat, a near-Miss World whom Ransome partially bought and partially seduced away from Gutiérrez, so he's never sure if the president owes him one, or wants to kill him. With her thick dark hair and smooth dark skin, she has to be mostly Indian. In her pink Lycra bikini she arouses new passion. Who wants pale, thin, pink flesh, who wants limp, curly blond hair, when you can have lustrous browns, purple-blacks?
Adultery and dark-eyed young women are forever entwined in my memory. It is a memory, even now, that fills me with chills and terror and terrible, terrible desire. When I was a child, one of our servants took me to his village. He wanted me to see something special from the old Iraqi culture. Otherwise, he feared, my lenient Jewish upbringing would later betray me. A young woman, possibly adulterous but certainly bold and brave and beautiful enough to excite rumors of promiscuity, was stoned to death that day. What I remember now is the breathlessness of waiting as the husband encircled her, as she struggled against the rope, as the stake barely swayed to her writhing. I remember the dull thwock and the servant's strong fingers shaking my shoulders as the first stone struck.
I realize I am one of the very few Americans who knows the sound of rocks cutting through flesh and striking bone. One of the few to count the costs of adultery.
Maria drops her beach towel on the patio floor, close to my deck chair, and straightens the towel's edge with her toes. She has to have been a dancer before becoming Ransome's bride and before Gutiérrez plucked her out of convent school to become his mistress. Only ballerinas have such blunted, misshapen toes. But she knows, to the right eyes, even her toes are desirable.
"I want to hear about New York, Alfred." She lets herself fall like a dancer on the bright red towel. Her husband is helping Eduardo, the houseboy, load the jeep with the day's gear, and it's him she seems to be talking to. "My husband won't let me visit the States. He absolutely won't."
"She's putting you on, Al," Ransome shouts. He's just carried a case of beer out to the jeep. "She prefers St. Moritz."
I can feel the heat rising from her, or from the towel. I can imagine as the water beads on her shoulders how cool her flesh will be for just a few more minutes.
"Do I look as though I ski?"
I don't want to get involved in domestic squabbles. The indios watch us. A solemn teenager hefts his machete. We are to have an uncomplicated view of the ocean from the citadel of this patio.
"My husband is referring to the fact that I met John Travolta in St. Moritz," she says, defiantly.
"Sweets," says Ransome. The way he says it, it's a threat.
"He has a body of one long muscle, like an eel," she says.
Ransome is closer now, "Make sure Eduardo doesn't forget the crates," he says.
"Okay, okay," she shouts back, "excuse me," and I watch her corkscrew to her feet. I'm so close I can hear her ligaments pop.
Soon after, Bud Wilkins roars into the cleared patch that serves as the main parking lot. He backs his pickup so hard against a shade tree that a bird wheels up from its perch. Bud lines it up with an imaginary pistol and curls his finger twice in its direction. I'm not saying he has no feeling for wildlife. He's in boots and camouflage pants, but his hair, what there is of it, is blow-dried.
He stalks my chair. "We could use you, buddy." He uncaps a beer bottle with, what else, his teeth. "You've seen some hot spots."
"He doesn't want to fish." Ransome is drinking beer, too. "We wouldn't want to leave Maria unprotected." He waits for a retort, but Bud's too much the gentleman. Ransome stares at me and winks, but he's angry. It could get ugly, wherever they're going.
They drink more beer. Finally Eduardo comes out with a crate. He carries it bowlegged, in mincing little half-running steps. The fishing tackle, of course. The crate is dumped into Bud's pickup. He comes out with a second and third, equally heavy, and drops them all in Bud's truck. I can guess what I'm watching. Low-grade arms transfer, rifles, ammo and maybe medicine.
"Ciao, amigo," says Bud in his heavy-duty Texas accent. He and Ransome roar into the jungle in Ransome's jeep.
"I hope you're not too hungry, Alfie." It's Maria calling from the kitchen. Alfred to Alfie before the jeep can have made it off the property.
"I'm not a big eater." What I mean to say is, I'm adaptable. What I'm hoping is, let us not waste time with food.
"Eduardo!" The houseboy, probably herniated by now, comes to her for instructions. "We just want a salad and fruit. But make it fast, I have to run into San Vincente today." That's the nearest market town. I've been there, it's not much.
She stands at the front door about to join me on the patio when Eduardo rushes us, broom in hand. "Vaya!" he screams.
But she is calm. "It must be behind the stove, stupid," she tells the servant. "It can't have made it out this far without us seeing it."
Eduardo wields his broom like a night stick and retreats into the kitchen. We follow. I can't see it. I can only hear desperate clawing and scraping on the tiles behind the stove.
Maria stomps the floor to scare it out. The houseboy shoves the broom handle in the dark space. I think first, being a child of the overheated deserts, giant scorpions. But there are two fugitives, not one, a pair of ocean crabs. The crabs, their shiny purple backs dotted with yellow, try to get by us to the beach where they can hear the waves.
How do mating ocean crabs scuttle their way into Clovis T. Ransome's kitchen? I feel for them.
The broom comes down, thwack, thwack, and bashes the shells in loud, succulent cracks. Ransome, Gringo, I hear.
He sticks his dagger into the burlap sacks of green chemicals. He rips, he cuts.
"Eduardo, it's all right. Everything's fine." She sounds stern, authoritative, the years in the presidential palace have served her well. She moves toward him, stops just short of taking his arm.
He spits out, "He kills everything." At least, that's the drift. The language of Cervantes does not stretch around the world without a few skips in transmission. Eduardo's litany includes crabs, the chemicals, the sulfurous pool, the dead birds and snakes and lizards.
"You have my promise," Maria says. "It's going to work out. Now I want you to go to your room, I want you to rest."
We hustle him into his room but he doesn't seem to notice his surroundings. His body has gone slack. I hear the word Santa Simona, a new saint for me. I maneuver him to the cot and keep him pinned down while Maria checks out a rusty medicine cabinet.
He looks up at me. "You drive Doña Maria where she goes?"
"If she wants me to, sure."
"Eduardo, go to sleep. I'm giving you something to help." She has water and a blue pill ready.
While she hovers over him, I check out his room. It's automatic with me. There are crates under the bed. There's a table covered with oilcloth. The oilcloth is cracked and grimy. A chair by the table is a catchall for clothes, shorts, even a bowl of fruit. Guavas. Eduardo could have snuck in caviar, imported cheeses, Godiva candies, but it's guavas he's chosen to stash for siesta hour hunger pains. The walls are hung with icons of saints. Posters of stars I'd never have heard of if I hadn't been forced to drop out. Baby-faced men and women. The women are sensual in an old-fashioned, Latin way, with red curvy lips, big breasts and tiny waists. Like Maria. Quite a few are unconvincing blondes, in that brassy Latin way. The men have greater range. Some are young versions of Fernando Lamas, some are in fatigues and boots, striking Robin Hood poses. The handsomest is dressed as a guerrilla with all the right accessories: beret, black boots, bandolier. Maybe he'd played Che Guevara in some B-budget Argentine melodrama.
"What's in the crates?" I ask Maria.
"I respect people's privacy," she says. "Even a servant's." She pushes me roughly toward the door. "So should you."
* * *
The daylight seems too bright on the patio. The bashed shells are on the tiles. Ants have already discovered the flattened meat of ocean crabs, the blistered bodies of clumsy toads.
Maria tells me to set the table. Every day we use a lace cloth, heavy silverware, roses in a vase. Every day we drink champagne. Some mornings the Ransomes start on the champagne with breakfast. Bud owns an air-taxi service and flies in cases of Épernay, caviar, any damned thing his friends desire.
She comes out with a tray. Two plates, two fluted glasses, chèvre cheese on a bit of glossy banana leaf, water biscuits. "I'm afraid this will have to do. Anyway, you said you weren't hungry."
I spread a biscuit and hand it to her.
"If you feel all right, I was hoping you'd drive me to San Vincente." She gestures at Bud Wilkins's pickup truck. "I don't like to drive that thing."
"What if I didn't want to?"
"You won't. Say no to me, I mean. I'm a terrific judge of character." She shrugs, and her breasts are slower than her shoulders in coming down.
"The keys are on the kitchen counter. Do you mind if I use your w.c. instead of going back upstairs? Don't worry, I don't have horrible communicable diseases." She laughs.
This may be intimacy. "How could I mind? It's your house."
"Alfie, don't pretend innocence. It's Ransome's house. This isn't my house."
I get the key to Bud's pickup and wait for her by the bruised tree. I don't want to know the contents of the crates, though the stencilling says "fruits" and doubtless the top layer preserves the fiction. How easily I've been recruited, when a bystander is all I wanted to be. The Indians put down their machetes and make signs to me: Hi, mom, we're Number One. They must have been watching Ransome's tapes. They're all wearing Braves caps.
The road to San Vincente is rough. Deep ruts have been cut into the surface by army trucks. Whole convoys must have passed this way during the last rainy season. I don't want to know whose trucks, I don't want to know why.
Forty minutes into the trip Maria says, "When you get to the T, take a left. I have to stop off near here to run an errand." It's a strange word for the middle of a jungle.
"Don't let it take you too long," I say. "We want to be back before hubby gets home." I'm feeling jaunty. She touches me when she talks.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Middleman and other Stories"
Copyright © 1988 Bharati Mukherjee.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Wife's Story,
Fighting for the Rebound,
The Management of Grief,