One of the most famous opening lines of US postmedern fiction is “-Money…? in a voice that rustled.” Chris Benjamin, born the year J R (1975) came out, begins Drive-by Saviours with the birth of one of his two main male characters, Bumi, in Rilaka, a seemingly ficional island in Indonesia. “From the beginning Bumi’s eyes pierced harder than any other’s, glowering while his father forced him to try football, glowing brightly at the chance to help the man count market money from mainland fish sales. By age four he’d humbled his father by becoming a faster and more accurate bookkeeper.” Like JR Vansant, Bumi is an apparent innocent and he doesn’t find the “sandy paradise” of his island nearly as interesting as numbers, languages, and engineering. He invents a fishing net so that his father, Yusupu, can spend less time at sea and more time with him. “The lighter workload and greater cash flow that came [the fishermen’s] way…resulted not in more play time with his father, but less,” and with time to kill, the men drink more. Things become difficult for Bumi, his mother, Win, and his mentally challenged sister, Alfi, as their father changes, just as life on Rilaka does. The lesson, unlearned by Bumi, is that innovation, if not accompanied by sufficient thought about its ramifications, can lead to troubling social and domestic problems.
Further changes come in the young boy’s life when Indonesia’s dictator-president, Suharto, sees ” a chance to get some easy money from the World Bank,” as one mentor tells Bumi, by enacting a policy to better educate the population. Benjamin prioritizes the effects: “Rilaka was hard hit by this development and the new needs it created. Twenty percent of the labour force was to be siphoned away like overpriced gas, the twenty percent that ate the least. And with Bumi’s departure they would lose their top engineer, bookkeeper and translator. But all these losses were nothing compared to the departure of fifteen children aged six to eleven years.” Maybe the villagers feel that way, but Benjamin underlines the economic impact. From the first pages, he establishes a narrative in which people are objects that can be moved around, disposed of, and treated as commodities. Under the auspices of enlightenment, education, like commerce, is an insturment of oppression.
A sizable part of the novel has chapters that alternate between showing Bumi as he grows up, gets married, becomes a father, and gets into serious trouble, and the adult life of Mark, a social worker in Toronto, Ontario, who is married to a model, estranged from his family, and afraid of much that life has to offer. Where Bumi is the spark, the person who creates opportunities through his precocious intelligence, Mark is the grump who states, “I was content when I was twenty-five years old.” He can only fall from here. He has little connection with the clients he sees: “They gave me the Coles Notes version of all their problems and I made suggestions, like a drive-by saviour.” His one talent is writing grant proposals that put a sheen of respectability on this eleemosynary activity. Though separated by thousands of miles, he and Bumi are connected by an ability and interest in finance that results in benefits primarily for others.
It doesn’t spoil anything to say that Bumi winds up in Toronto and both characters meet. Well before this,the reader will have recognized from Bumi’s rituals, constant washing, and other indicators that he has OCD, though in Indonesia it appears he’s practicing black magic. Mark manages, in one of his few succesful interventions, to get him to a doctor so he can learn that he’s not alone in his illness, and that there are medicaitons and ways to control his thinking and behaviour. Mark also realizes that his sister Michelle, who he hasn’t talked to for some time, must have suffered from the same condition since they were children. He reaches out to her, and their relationship is one that Bumi and his sister can’t have. We’re given a sustained look at how Bumi operates under his condition, but, wisely, not so much what Michelle goes through. This neat parallelism could threaten to turn the novel into the equivalent of those malady-of-the-moment books. After seeing an Oprah Winfrey show about OCD, she recognizes she’s not the only one suffering from it:
“Standing on the roadside before a milelong stretch of impatient authomobiles with her stop sign held loosely in hand, Michelle wondered about all those undiagnosed geniuses in prisons, on streets or trapped in lonely nightmares throughout the world. She wondered if they had their own version of Oprah to diagnose them. She doubted it. She wondered how the world would look if they did.”
This almost bland moment is immediately overturned when the “loosely held stop sign flip[s] around in her hand,” allowing traffic to flow both ways at a road construction site. In the bureaurcratic parlance Benjamin occasionally mimics, she’s “laid off due to insufficient funds.” OCD is taken seriously but he keeps his distance, keeping away from sensationalism or mawkishness.
Outside of Mark’s interpretation of her, Michelle is not given much depth beyond her OCD and her lesbianism, while Mark, adept at being selfish, rarely engages one’s sympathies. Greater, or more natural, energy is put into Bumi and the picture of Indonesia, based on Benjamin’s worldwide travels and an interest in social justice. Here, his references to perhaps indonesia’s best-known and banned writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006), are nicely done, and he’s careful to let his anger come out in his themes. Mark’s girlfriend, Sarah, and Michelle are somewhat underdeveloped, and the policeman, Robadise Paradise is a stock figure, as are others. But that strikes me as deliberate. Instead of placing characters at the forefront, Benjamin has chosen to write a roman à thème (though more subtle than that often implies) to get us to think about immigration (legal and illegal), authoritarian rules, monetary and social policies, from a political standpoint. This is meant to clash with the omnipresent theme of commerce, as when we’re reminded here and there that “cold hard cash” is what’s needed to free Bumi from his obligations, and for other purposes.
Some people may prefer books with less social content. Paul West addressed this in the first volume of Sheer Fiction (1987) when he wrote about the “anti-style rabble” who, among other targets, dislike writing that ventures, heaven forbid, into areas not ‘traditional’ to the novel, such as science, instead of the ups and downs of little people with mortgaes and fireplaces that leak smoke.” Chris Benjamin has chosen legitimate and important subjects for his first novel, whose ending allows limited hope for positive change. Bumi, in Rilaka, composes a letter at the end of every month. “He sits down in the moonlight and, inspired by the constant rhythim of the waves,” Mark says, “writes me his latest symphony.” For Bumi, the commerce has been replaced by a form of peace with the world; as for Mark, who now works for Mexico, it remains an open question how he’s doing.-Jeff Bursey, American Book Review, July-August 2011, Volume 32, Number 5