Books: Damon Galgut's 'In a Strange Room,' reviewed by Ron Charles

The Washington Post's fiction critic picks special gifts for the book lover.
By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 10:16 PM


Three Journeys

By Damon Galgut

Europa. 207 pp. Paperback, $15

I'm weary of dreary.

I know it's an act of book reviewing apostasy, but I've had it with the exquisitely crafted sighs of depressed men. And that's not just the eggnog talking. Honestly, how many times do we have to praise the stark story of a wandering, alienated man that Hemingway perfected in "The Sun Also Rises" way back in 1926?

Every year adds two or three "haunting masterpieces" to this respected subgenre. This year's top entries included Joshua Ferris's grave "The Unnamed," Dinaw Mengestu's somber "How to Read the Air" and now Damon Galgut's "In a Strange Room," which was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. The lyrics differ - a little - but the melody of these dirges doesn't change: existential angst gliding along one spare, cool paragraph after another, like a Giacometti statue strutting out of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I've put in my time with these narrators, and I've praised their harrowing stories and stylistic elegance, but Galgut, a South African novelist and playwright, has finally worn me out.

"In a Strange Room" is a collection of three autobiographical travel tales that have won praise since they were first published in the Paris Review and now come to us bound together as a novel. In each of these stories, "he goes on somewhere else. And somewhere else again . . . He feels no connection with anything around him, he's constantly afraid of dying."

In the first story, "The Follower," our shell-shocked narrator is drifting through Greece when he bumps into Reiner, a strikingly handsome German dressed all in black. "He has a sullen sort of beauty," Galgut tells us, "with long silky hair that falls around his shoulders." They end up in the same hostel, where they engage in Brief Conversations Fraught With Tension:

"How long are you here for.

"I'm also going in the morning.

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