“The Fortune Men”, a novel which remembers a man wrongly sentenced to death


There was a moment in Gary Shteyngart’s novel “Lake Success” (2018), the average book he wrote before this year’s excellent one, that stood out to me. I can’t find the passage in my copy, but it did express the idea that we want a sign, all of us, that our trip is in some way a special trip.

I thought of Shteyngart as I read the next paragraph, from the end of Mohamed’s novel, when Mahmood is in prison. It’s long, so I’m going to split it into two pieces. It’s one of the best things I’ve read this year, and it reflects his love of cinema:

“It is not that Mahmood thinks he is important, these last months have wrested this illusion, but he is extraordinary, his life To been extraordinary. The things he got out of, the things he was punished for, the things he saw, the way in which it once seemed possible to him to bend, with great force, everything to his will . Her life was just one long movie with crowds of extras and exotic, expensive sets. Long oars of film and miles of dialogue stretch out as he struts from scene to scene.

“He can imagine what his film looks like even now: the camera zooms in from above onto the cobbled prison yard, then blends into a close-up of his pensive, up-facing face, smoke billowing. from the corner of his dark lips. A color film, that must be it. It has it all: comedy, music, dance, travel, murder, the wrong man caught, a twisted lawsuit, a race against time and then the happy ending, the woman carried in the hero’s arms as he exits, a sun-drenched day, to freedom. The image stretches Mahmood’s mouth into a smile.

Oh, man. And yet, such reverberating passages are rare in “The Fortune Men”. The book dissipates much of his energy, especially in its first half, oscillating between the stories of the shopkeeper, his family, Mahmood’s ex-wife and their sons, and that of Mahmood himself. There is more summary than scene.

Little momentum is created. When she threatens to do so, the story feels limited by the details of Mahmood’s real life. The novel is adjoining. If this book was a shell game, you’d never wonder where the pea is. Your brain gives it three stars, but your heart gives it only two.

We have little sense, for example, of what brought Mahmood and his English wife together. I missed having scenes from their courtship, their seductions, that could have provided a way to warm him up as a character.

Mahmood had few friends and many enemies. He was more and more isolated, on a limb, in England. The fact that he was black made it easy for someone to come and cut the branch.

It’s a bestselling novel, but Mohamed is a great talent, and she’s just getting started.


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