The Silver Hearted arrives emblazoned with a jacket blurb by Edmund White, who compares the book favorably to Heart of Darkness. This is true in at least one way: both novels are about a man on a boat. In McConnell's case, the boat is a "side-wheeler" called the Myrrha, which has been hired by the nameless narrator to help ferry valuable cargo down a nameless river through a nameless country at war. Danger abounds. Snipers line the riverbed; frenzied mobs surge through the streets; storms rip across the surrounding rain forest.
"In the flash of satanic lightning you could glimpse the glassy black water and the infinite creaming wake of the wheel," notes the narrator, peering back at the destruction unfurling behind him. "Even leaves of the jungle gleamed red." McConnell doesn't waste much time with specifics. The cause of the conflict is never fully explained—we learn only that a war is being fought between a handful of competing tribes, including the Karak, the fantastically named Rapithwinists, and the "urban Marxists"—nor is the path that brought the narrator to the river. In this way, McConnell is able to strip the book to its core elements: the man, the vessel, the omnipresent fear, an unexpected flicker of passion.
This last is inspired by Topher Ammidon Smith, a blond teenager hired to help ferry the valuable cargo down the river. "He was big, and might grow huge," McConnell writes. "His skin was sheet white, very strange in that climate. A healed break (I later learned) thickened the bridge of his nose, which gave him a slightly leonine air." The tension between the two men is one of the most gracefully executed elements of McConnell's book. As the Myrrha swerves from one disaster to the next, Topher and the narrator find a "wild frisson"—an intimacy strengthened by the trials of their shared journey.
How readers will respond to that journey will likely depend on what they hope to find. Although Edmund White is surely right that the book echoes the themes of Heart of Darkness, McConnell has none of Joseph Conrad's urgency. Unlike Heart of Darkness, The Silver Hearted is deliberately abstract—McConnell is more interested in setting the mood than steering the plot. As a result, the narrative occasionally gurgles to a halt. ("Unimpressed by magical-seeming photocatalysis, the captain now and then brushed these bits of twiggy life from the mounts of his shoulders or belly, his beringed hand moving with lethargic insensitivity," reads one violently overloaded sentence.)
Still, as a stylist, McConnell is often first-rate; I can think of few writers who could so convincingly imagine, evoke, and people a distant world. At its best, The Silver Hearted attains a kind of hypnotic transcendence—everything but the atmosphere drops away. Here's the narrator, waking from a fitful sleep: "Each of us lurched through morning thoughts: the mind zooms in crazily on an idea or thing, on a memory of project, pans over other ones, while we sense in our bones, but refuse to admit, what a clunky mechanism consciousness really is, prone to chill, overheat, race, break down, slow, falter, drift, and worst of all, stop. One has to steady oneself to get through the day."
Matthew Shaer writes about books for The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, among other publications.