Reviewed by Darcy Munson Meijer (Gabon 1982–84)
JOHN GIVENS’ A FRIEND IN THE POLICE is intense, mysterious and imbued with a sense of jungle doom. The story shares parallels with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but Givens adds humor and a modern twist to make the story more accessible and quite enjoyable.
Givens locates Friend in a nameless jungle “Republic” — a combination of Southeast Asian locales — and populates it sparsely with strange characters. George Bates has come from the United States to find his young adult son, Philip. He fears he is in police detention, but doesn’t know what for. He meets only blocks in his search, in the person of Detective Sergeant Xlong and his witless officers. Xlong knows something about Philip, but he won’t tell. He hints of an incident with a pistol upriver, of “a homicide completed, delayed or fumbled.” Perhaps, Xlong suggests, Philip will be charged with “conspiracy to commit.” As the plot unfolds we learn more about Xlong’s ill-fated family, a rogue geologist who ran a tin smeltery, and Philip’s involvement with both.
Much of A Friend in the Police is told from the viewpoint of Xlong, whose tortuous inner monologues on the nature of human contact and control let us know he’s holding on to his sanity by a thread. Over the years, he has built up the tools he needs to “escape from the uncertainty that nearly destroyed him,” including his leading role in the police force. Givens shows the events of the plot, human and complex, to great relief against the binary code of Xlong’s mind.
It was Xlong’s brothers, a persuasive missionary girl, and a foreign geologist who set the plot in motion. Philip has bungled into the thick of the story, and we enter with his father, demanding to know what’s going on. A reading group could have fun with several discussion points, including the roles of missionaries and expats in developing countries and the question of adulthood in the 21st century. When I asked Givens about the story’s parallels with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, he replied that Conrad suggests the darkness of savagery is inherent in human nature and that his — Givens’ — intention is “to parody that theme by pointing at the neurotic excesses of modern self-consciousness, exemplified by the young American, Philip.”
Veronique Vienne writes in her Introduction to A Friend in the Police that Givens’ characters are as real as if they were in front of you, but that “What will become less clear are their motives and the reasons for their actions, as alternative explanations bloom with startling fecundity.” And Givens does not hand us these motives and reasons. He gives a whisper here, a crumb there, and even at the end . . .
Givens keeps Bates hanging on, too. But when Bates is at the limit of his patience, Givens introduces C.K. Sprague, one of the funniest characters I’ve ever met. Sprague has been in the Republic for a long time, long enough to build up a bad relationship with the police. He is a cock fighter fallen on hard times, forced to lurk in dank holes and alleys. He, too, has a bone to pick with the geologist. Givens uses Xlong — the keeper of order — and Sprague — the “natural” man — to enhance the tone of the book and define its extremes. You wouldn’t want to get close to Sprague because he so closely resembles his roosters, and Xlong is totally inaccessible as a human being.
For me, Givens’ command of narration and dialogue is the best aspect of the book. Take a look at Sprague’s swinging repartee or Xlong’s self-examination. Read the bittersweet, comical argument between Bates and his son in the final part of the book, a collage of noun clauses, a sample of which: “Don’t you think I thought you thought I knew what you were thinking?” Givens bends innocent phrases to this perverse jungle: Xlong wonders whether his mistress will “crack her knuckles and smile sweetly.” In one hilarious scene, Sprague woefully recounts how he dragged a rotting corpse through the jungle and, by the end of the haul, the body was “what you would call depreciated.”
Givens uses imagery masterfully to create a sinister mood. The jungle pervades the scenes; it is out to strangle and bury us in its mold. It is neutral toward human suffering. And it holds secrets. Violence is offhand and casual. We don’t see the police beating Bates, but he enters a scene with a black eye. Children carry pointed sticks and moldered plaster plops heavily from walls. Smelting operations grind to a halt and missionaries break strong men.
In a few spots in the first half of the book Givens changes scene without warning. Though unconventional, the strategy didn’t detract from my enjoyment. And the typos I found can be easily corrected. The pace of the first half of the book was slower than the second, but as I was given more background and understood more, I was better able to enjoy Givens’ humor and characters.
A Friend in the Police is a fine story. Indeed, Givens has published three novels, a short story collection, and a non-fiction book in addition to this. A reader who enjoys unusual mysteries and the twists of the human psyche would do well to check out A Friend in the Police.
Darcy Munson Meijer taught EFL as a Peace Corps Volunteer. She now lives with her family in Abu Dhabi and teaches English at Zayed University. She has recently published a book with Peace Corps Writers — Adventures in Gabon: Peace Corps Stories from the African Rainforest — a collection of the best stories submitted by Gabon RPCVs to the quarterly “Gabon Letter.”