David McLaurin's beautifully constructed second novel holds out the promise of future greatness, says Paul Goodman Mortal Sins by David McLaurin, Duckworth, £14.99.
DAVID MCLAURIN'S first novel, The Bishop of San Fernando, welded a foreign location with Christian themes: guilt, damnation, redemption. In his second, Mortal Sins, he returns to the same combination. It is set in a Latin American military dictatorship referred to only as "the Republic", populated by gouty, strutting Colonels;
flighty, apprehensive socialites; ambitious, restless young officers; disgruntled, homesick diplomats and the people. It is "a land under a cloud... a shadow had fallen between them and reality, and in that shade they were all condemned to live."
But the General ("no-one even ieferred to him by his real name: he was always just the General") is dying and the currency is collapsing; winds are blowing that threaten to disperse the clouds. Roberto Enriquez, a Captain of Cavalry, is swept up in the gale. Aloof, cold, and arrogant, he has a mother he distrusts, a fiancee he dislikes, and one friend. A nominal Catholic, he is appointed to oversee anti-communist activities at the Ministry of Security, and is thus driven towards damnation, raised up again, damned again, and then well, to tell would be to ruin the plot (and Mr McLaurin's novel is very thoroughly plotted), but the solution hinges upon that friend, Fritz, and a Lieutenant in the Engineers called Tanucci.
Mortal Sins is as well written as it is well-planned. Mr McLaurin's style is simple, seamless, well-rounded, and utterly confident. There is beautifully crafted understatement. So it is that Tanucci, after seeing a colleague executed for rape, becomes "rather sensitive to the idea of offences in general."
Yet effective, profound and very moving as Mortal Sins is, there is something missing. McLaurin has been compared to Conrad, and more often to Greene (that alliance of Latin America and Catholic guilt alone would make comparisons inevitable). There is a very slight touch of Evelyn Waugh's Fr D'Arcy, too, about Mr McLaurin's Arch bishop's Secretary, Fr Morisco.
But what is not present in his writing is passion at least passion directly confronted and openly expressed. That neatly turned prose, concentrated almost entirely upon the thoughts and behaviour of the characters there is remarkably little description either of places or people somehow compresses and confines them, and the great themes amidst wHich they arc entangled. In Brighton Rock, say the similarity of subject matter needs no further comment the urgency of Greene's need to say what must be said has a way of breaking through the prose, like an axe shattering glass. Mr McLaurin, one senses, is not yet ready for such a confrontation.
But it would be unfair to set him too high a bar to vault over, though it is a tribute to Mortal Sins that the temptation is there. And it is perhaps unreasonable to ask Mr McLaurin to be less well-mannered. So let him be praised for the authenticity and accomplishment with which he confronts the big questions. We have a fine novel, and a considerable novelist.
One day, we may have a great novel, and an author whom one would not be afraid to dignify with the same adjective.