Sunday, October 2, 2011

Last Man In Tower

A couple years ago author AravindAdiga had a big critical and commercial hit with the Man Booker winning The White Tiger. It was a funny, gritty, grisly, wonderful, contemporary Horatio Alger/ Kind Hearts and Coronets story set in India. Adiga’s new novel, Last Man In Tower, can be described with all the same adjectives (and then some) except this time he’s not creating his version of a dark rags to riches story but the classic Kaufman and Hart play, You Can’t Take It With You.

The tower itself is Tower A in an apartment complex that is handily situated near both the slums and the airport in Mumbai. Tower A isn’t the bright pink it used to be, has any number of maintenance issues but it does boast the Vishram Society. The Society is made up of the residents of the tower. They are a close knit, middle class proud, virtuous group.  When the Tower first opened it was for Catholics only. Diversity was gradual, in the 1960’s Hindus were admitted followed by Muslims in the 1980’s. They may gossip about each other but they are devoted to one another and if not over the moon happy they are at least trying.

Enter the villain. Dharmen Shah, ruthless real estate developer. Shah wants to demolish the apartment complex in order to make way for luxury redevelopments. He and his jack of all mayhem Shanmugham have already emptied Tower B. That one was easy-pickings. It was filled with young executives eager to rise in the world. Tower A however is proving more difficult. Its residents are long term and consider the tower their home.

So far so very You Can’t Take It With You. In the play the grasping industrialist needs to buy the homestead of the poor but honest family (Along with every house on the block.) in order to build a factory and make even more money on the backs of the oppressed.  There the moral center of the story, the man who can stand up to Big Business is the family patriarch Grandpa, Lionel Barrymore in the movie. In Last Man in Tower the shining guidepost, the man who wants to save them all is Masterji. He becomes the leader of the opposition. The residents form an unofficial parliament to try and stop the evil developer played in the movie by the unsung Edward Arnold and in the book by Dharmen Shah.

Now the play/movie and the novel diverge. The play celebrates the mythical homespun virtues of the populace, love and individuality. Last Man In Tower is more complex. The residents are close but not blood and their problems are not the adorable problems of a 1930’s fantasy. They are unified in saving their homes but for how long can they hold out against the offers of money, which they could all use and when money doesn’t work, the threats of violence?

Adiga pulls out his amazing talents and provides us with all the fascinating particulars of the residents and the developer.  Their motives, weakness and eccentricities are illustrated with deceptive simplicity. Adiga leads us down the path we expect to follow since we know that the underdog is the good guy and the rich guy is the villain. Then something happens and the reader is challenged. Is it so bad to want more? To not feel compelled to look out for everyone? Does the past need to be preserved? Is progress the same as greed? Does righteousness go hand and hand with narcissism?

Last Man In Tower is an even stronger novel than White Tiger. Aravind Adiga has taken a well worn idea and made it his own. He takes a hard view of personal and public corruption in Last Man In Tower. However instead of relentlessly, humorlessly grinding his axe on every page he fills the narrative with a Dickensian  passion for social evils wrapped around a wide ranging plot that balances absurdity and disgusted honesty with varied and colorful characters. The bonuses for readers are the sudden discoveries of poignancy and fraudulence among Adiga’s shifting relationships and politics.


  1. I'm so jealous that you're in a bookstore and get your hands on the good books before I do! --can't wait :oP

  2. It really is great I have to say!!