Tigerman by Nick Harkaway
Superheroes are funny old things. I remember when reading a comic would get you ridiculed in the playground and possibly duffed up a bit. Especially if it was one of those American comics, you usually could get away with 2000AD because, well, Dredd. But these days, thanks to the movies and the rise to power of The Geek, comics are cool and Superheroes are big bank. The films and books we get these days try, to a greater or lesser extent, to ground their characters in a sense of reality. Gone are radioactive spider bites or gamma rays, in are gene splicing and good old evolution. But for me, as a Batman man, the idea of a guy in a suit with a heap of training is far more interesting than mystical powers, as fun as they can be sometimes. When we get literary about it, things can go any of a million ways. One of the best novels about superheroes is Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which is really more about the two Jewish guys writing The Escapist than it is about the action. But, when done well, the literary superhero is a fun thing. Enter Tigerman.
Nick Harkaway’s third novel is set on the former island paradise of Mancreu, an island that’s depths spew out strange clouds and, due to this, will be glassed by the UN Military forces that make up the “protection” of the island. Due to its limbo state, it becomes the perfect place to park whatever you don’t want the world to see. Off the coast sits The Fleet, a collection of vessels that do everything from illegal medical operations to drugs and DVD’s. It is one of those backwaters that you never hear about until something happens. Into this is placed Lester Ferris, Sergeant of Her Majesty’s Army and Brevet Consul for HM’s Government on the island, as Mancreu used to be one of those many specs of Empire. Lester is coming to the end of his hitch, worn out of being shot at and blown up, he is relaxing and counting down the days of his employ, as much as the island counts down its existence. The Sergeant, while doing his rounds, befriends many on the island, being the de-facto bobby on the beat. None more so than The Boy, a teenager versed in pop-culture, geekdom and seemingly little else. While taking tea at Shola’s Tea House, armed men burst in and gun down Shola and the women in his employ. The Sergeant, who had dived into the kitchen, fearing for The Boy who is now staring down the barrels of these armed men, grabs what is to had, a custard tin, and bursts into action. Custard powder, when in a confined space we are told, is explosive, as the gunmen find out when one of them panics and shoots the lobbed tin flying at him. The Sergeant, diving into action, takes down the remaining gunman and saves the boy. This is the start of the creation of the Tigerman, the avenger The Boy and The Sergeant create to track down who killed their friend.
Harkaway’s book plays with the idea of a superhero and uses the dryness that only a Brit could bring to the idea. The Boy speaks in the nomenclature of the net, terrible grammar and abbreviations that, as the novel is told from The Sargeant’s point of view, is happily explained while The Sergeant takes a moment to figure out what the kid is saying. It is a clever device and allows the fast pace of The Boys world that even those of us at the ripe old age of 36 can struggle to keep up with. The Sergeant is written in a rather literary prose style. His journeys around the island are as languid as the pace of the life that he leads, but his interactions with The Boy and the representatives of the other Nations on the island allows Harkaway to play with his style, as much as a character is drawn in a frame of a comic. This creates a very fluid sense of place and character, one that could easily get out of hand, but Harkaway holds the prose together and the action well, which slowly builds, as does the world's attention to Mancreu. The mystery behind the murder is played secondary to The Sergeant's search to understand who The Boy is and, ultimately, would he be willing to be adopted by The Sergeant and return to England together when the island is destroyed. This is the heart of the novel for The Sergeant is very much a reluctant superhero, he wants to be a dad, not <insert favoured superhero here>. When the Tigerman’s fame grows, so does The Sargeant’s willingness to burn the suit, but The Boy and circumstance keeps pulling him back.
Tigerman is a fabulously crafted adventure. The story keeps turning just enough of the tropes we know on their head, all with a wickedly dry sense of humour, while never losing the fact of the seriousness of their actions. Tigerman is wonderfully British, and yet, just plain wonderful.