cover image The Snake Charmer

The Snake Charmer

Sanjay Nigam. William Morrow & Company, $22 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-688-15809-5

Indian-born Nigam, a physician who teaches at Harvard, has written a rather derivative fable about the fleeting nature of fame and fortune and about a life ""ruined by a single moment of stupidity."" Expanded--perhaps overexpanded--from a short story originally published in Grand Street, Nigam's debut tells the tale of a renowned snake charmer in New Delhi, who, bitten by his beloved defanged cobra, bites it back in a fit of rage, splitting the snake in half and accidentally killing it. Impoverished and tormented by guilt and remorse, middle-aged Sonalal loses his sexual potency and his gift for playing music. He's haunted by recurrent nightmares in which the deceased snake's female mate exacts lethal revenge on him. While the exotic trappings of Sonalal's midlife crisis will certainly attract a Western audience, the novel is too contrived (and too long), and its self-consciously elegant prose is uncomfortably at odds with the teeming slums it so prettily describes. Author tour. (June)