In Mohsin Hamid’s new novel, “The Last White Man,” a white man named Anders wakes up to darkened pigmentation, followed swiftly by others who turn “a deep undeniable brown.” His country (by which we mean white people), grows zealously protective of a whiter shade of pale. The citizenry divides into those who protect their whiteness, and others who seek to protect the lives of their freshly hyper-tanned friends, while becoming attuned to the strangeness of judging the moral fiber of those very people by the color of their skin, not to mention the possibility of chromatophoric tendencies of their own. People avoid going out, plan escapes, so they don’t “catch” anything or get “caught up” in anything (reprisals, or counter-protests), and begin to look for cures, a clear nod to our virus-ridden present.
Hamid has a superior ability to weave the politics of race and class into singular, intimate spaces. As in his previous novel, “Exit West,” the preferred currencies of capitalism — fear-mongering and exclusion — hum through this one. And, as in that book, Hamid confronts the dysfunction of becoming hostage to those inhumane transactions, and the redemption possible when that course is spurned. A (white) mother already broken by the loss of a son, watches the evolution of her daughter from “beautiful” to intolerable, primarily because of her feelings for a (newly Black) man, and back again. That daughter, Oona, moves cautiously from lukewarm interest in Anders to full-blown embrace of his quotidian magnificence.
The usual prejudices are in clear evidence. Oona’s mother is an easy culprit as she surveys the changing landscape and blames the “weird people who now came when you called for anything, for a plumber, an electrician, for help with your garden, for help with anything at all,” the kind of people “who were sometimes killing their own kind to make us look bad.” Anders learns to navigate his environment “hesitantly, pausing and observing at intersections, like a herbivore,” the business of avoiding suspicion turning him suspicious. He becomes aware of those he had previously overlooked, like the janitor at the gym where he works, a man who had always been Black. References to our racialized world are made with sure elegance: in a powerful moment of reckoning, Oona orders makeup that darkens her skin, only to realize that she cannot simply move through the world in a differently colored skin sack and not be threatened for it. Anders fights his wish to commit suicide, discovering instead “that the impulse to live was in him stronger than he might have imagined, undiminished by his bleak circumstances, and by the odd wrapper he was wrapped in.” A formerly white man kills himself, an event recounted this way: “a white man had indeed shot a dark man, but also that the dark man and the white man were the same.”
It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that this book is entirely about race. Yet what grips the reader throughout are the relationships that shift and turn, each according to the capacity not to tolerate but to see another human being fully, and to meet them exactly where they are. In the face of our temporary passage through life, described as a bridge of frequently rotten planks upon which we walk, swinging high above a canyon, never knowing how near we are to stepping into nothingness, Hamid highlights that common denominator which obliterates the significance of our petty obsessions with difference. What is miraculous, truly miraculous, Hamid shows us, is that anyone permits love. Its gestures, its simple expression, like a “proper kiss, a hello kiss,” or an ordinary omelet elevated by the fact of it being made for us by someone made extraordinary by our feelings for them. And it is hard to imagine a more moving account of mental illness, and human fragility, than the one Hamid manages to thread through this book with passages that are breathtaking in their succinctness.
Hamid’s most brilliant achievement is how little he strays from the idea that simmers under the surface of simple language made complex by long Kincaidian sentence structures: we are defined by no more and no less than what we do to care for one another. And no one does that better than Anders’s white father, a man whose introduction includes a note on beating his son so he can understand that a gun is “a marker on the journey of death,” something “like a coffin or a grave or a meal in winter, not to be foolish with.” A man whose presence is fierce and soft throughout the novel, whose visceral emotions are kept secondary, by his own choice, to the safety of his mutant son. Love grows deeper as it should in witnessing the struggle of a child. The old man does not shed his antipathies so much as he sets them aside so he can lend what strength he has to protect his child, not his prejudices, “outlasting his boy’s reluctance” to accept help, and “receive what his father was holding.” The story soars in brief scenes where the two interact, or keep vigil over their changed circumstances, of illness and age, of lost moorings of social status bestowed by an arbitrary turn of genetic dice. Even in death, this father commits himself to fathering, watching his son at his bedside, knowing that “they would make the passage together, or if not together, at least they would approach it not unaccompanied.”
That wish, to stand by one another, to accompany one another, rises repeatedly throughout the novel. Each character — Oona, her mother, Anders, and especially his father — chooses to wade mouth-deep into love. It is quite remarkable that, although we are left with the distinct impression that the world of the novel has changed for the better as people put away their weapons and sweep up the broken glass, we mourn deeply the passing of this last white man, a man whose whiteness hews to the idea of spiritual purity we have long ceased to associate with the color.
THE LAST WHITE MAN
By Mohsin Hamid
Riverhead, 192 pages, $26
Ru Freeman is the author of “Sleeping Alone: Stories,” “On Sal Mal Lane” and “A Disobedient Girl,” and editor of the anthology “Extraordinary Rendition: American Writers on Palestine,” and “Indivisible: Global Leaders on Shared Security.”