Everyone over a certain age who was lucky enough to see “Monty Python” remembers Michael Palin and his adventures with a very dead parrot . Then there was his amazing work in “A Fish Called Wanda,” which almost single-handedly made that film into a classic. The man is a comic genius.
But Palin’s made a second career as a travel writer and performer. His televised travels are delivered with a quiet dignity. “The Truth,” his second novel, is thoughtful and obviously meant to be significant. No parrots, alas.
Keith Mabbut is a 56-year-old British writer who’s going through a classic midlife crisis. His wife, Krystyna, has found a new man. “It wasn’t that she didn’t respect her husband anymore,” Palin writes. “She no longer understood him. She had settled into life. He hadn’t. She demanded practicality, he pleaded creativity. It was an argument they’d had from the moment they met.” In other words, we’re looking at that classic male protagonist: the man whose wife doesn’t understand him. Men may sigh in sympathy at this; women may snicker.
Keith has just finished writing the “official” history of a Scottish oil terminal and is thinking about attempting a novel. It’s to be a vast trilogy about prehistoric man, who was born into paradise and then driven out by a series of circumstances that we don’t get to hear much about because, just as Keith is settling down to the project, his agent calls with a dream assignment: the opportunity to write the biography of a famous environmental advocate, the reclusive Hamish Melville, who, with a cohort of devoted followers, takes on all sorts of villainous industrialists and developers. Melville detests journalists, but Keith’s agent is sure he’s just the man for the job, and a publisher has come forward with a very lucrative contract.
But for many pages, Keith refuses to be party to such an enterprise, for no reason I could figure out. Perhaps Palin just wanted the conflict, but since the novel is obviously going to be about the environmentalist, it seems like a waste of paper. Finally, Keith very reluctantly consents and, with a minimum of trouble, tracks down Melville, who’s with remote Indian hill tribes whose land is being mined out from underneath them. Keith spends several days and nights with the tribal natives and is educated by Melville in the intricacies of environmental struggles all over the world.
All too soon, Melville takes off, and Keith is left to write the book. Which he does, but of course that draft isn’t accepted because it’s too deferential to the saintly Melville. So Keith’s editor helpfully supplies some damning evidence of evildoing and sets Keith to follow up on it.
Is Melville a bad man or a good one? Will Keith consent to make the revisions, even if they are true?
Which brings up that perennial — if sophomoric — question: What is truth? Palin pushes his characters this way and that as a means of figuring out a possible answer. The end seems melodramatic and preposterous, but my main complaint is the book’s plodding prose: “Once again, Mabbut’s incredulity seemed to energise Melville.” There are way too many sentences like this. They bog down what should have been a thrilling story. And there’s not a scintilla of irony or humor anywhere here. It is, as someone once said, “bereft of life.”
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.
By Michael Palin
Thomas Dunne. 261 pp. $24.99