cover image Narcopolis


Jeet Thayil. Penguin Press, $25.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-59420-330-5

A vibrantly squalid yet glamorous Bombay of the 1970s emerges as the main character in poet Thayil’s debut novel. An unnamed narrator wanders through the sweltering Indian underworld of opium dens with odd characters like the intellectually ravenous eunuch, Dimple; and Newton Xavier, a renowned visiting poet and painter. Offbeat character portraits and compelling philosophical discussions form the bulk of the book. The narrator eventually recedes from the story, but returns 25 years later to bookend the novel. In between, the focus shifts to Mr. Lee, a Chinese entrepreneur and frequenter of brothels. Mr. Lee’s eventual rise to affluence serves as a parallel to the journey of the city itself. When the narrator moves back in 2004, though heroin has superseded opium as the drug of choice (resulting in an even seamier underground), he finds that Bombay has become Mumbai, an international metropolis. Thayil’s precision and economy distill what could be a sprawling and uneven saga into an elegant tapestry of beautifully observed characters and their complex lives. Agent: David Godwin, David Godwin Associates. (Apr.)