In 2012, I traveled to South Africa to intern at a wildlife consulting company in the Greater Kruger. I lived in a three-person camp in the middle of the bush, went on safari every day, and played parent to a baby zebra. I began writing Almost Man on the plane home from Johannesburg.
Conrad is a wildlife ecologist who consults with forest reserves and game farms in the Kruger, and Neel is his Indian assistant who arrives in Africa to live with Conrad in a scrappy camp in the bush. Their job includes animal surveys, disease surveillance, and the fulfillment of special, and sometimes odd, requests. They go on safari almost every day. With his free time, Neel plays parent to a baby zebra, one of a handful of charismatic animals in the wildlife orphanage that operates out of the camp. Conrad’s ex-girlfriend (Jenna) and neighbors (Karl and Shelley) are among the characters that flit in and out of their lives.
Neel does not arrive in South Africa expecting to confront a racially charged reality. Then, five nights in, Conrad is called out to deal with a suspected poacher. The poacher turns out to be an unarmed, elderly black woman who speaks little English. Conrad harasses her, imprisons her in the trunk of their car, and finally abandons her on a desolate highway. Lying awake in bed that night, Neel begins to suspect that the rules swaying this land are beyond him. He is introduced to Conrad’s pet monkey, whose name, terrifyingly, is Obama. Four weeks into Neel’s stay, he learns two terrible secrets: first, that Conrad is an assassin for the South African government, and second, that Jenna may be trying to kill Neel.
The scene is further complicated by the arrival of four Americans, including the dashing Rob, who Neel falls for. Neel finds kinship with the Americans, but he struggles to forsake his allegiance to Conrad. The story ramps up to a fateful Sunday afternoon on which Obama escapes from his cage and tests the humanity of the camp’s inhabitants in the most brutal way.
Almost Man is the story of a boy becoming a man. It is also the story of a man who has ceased to be one. There is murder, romance, and adventure. And there is humanity, the trellised vines of good and evil, why people are driven to terrible deeds, and how greatness can lurk in the most fetid of places.
Writing a book is a singularly thrilling and masochistic endeavor. I started with outlines of chapters, ideas that I was married to, a clear vision of how the pages would fall into place. What I didn’t know was that a book has a mind of its own, a subversive consciousness that constantly throws its creator off balance. I once read about an author who organizes a party when she is done with the first draft of a book. At the party, she burns her manuscript, lets it die; the next day, she starts writing the book again. I never burned my book, but I can see why she does it. Either the author burns the book, or the book goes up in flame of its own accord.
I have rewritten Almost Man sixteen times. In many ways, the book is ready, done, over with. But I continue to edit it every few months, smoothing out analogies, cutting adjectives, pushing descriptions into precision, breathing pauses into tense bursts of action. I do this, of course, because I enjoy it.
Almost Man is set in the hinterland of post-apartheid South Africa. It follows the story of Conrad, an Akrikaner wildlife ecologist, and Neel, his Indian sidekick. I wrote this book over two years, under the guidance of Jon Readey, a lecturer in the Department of English at Brown University.
Length: 200 pages
Editor: Jon Readey
Readers: Prabudhya Bhattacharyya, Conor Sullivan, Steve Hagerty, Tirumala Banerjee, Sumana Bagchi, Vivian Strauss