India and Pakistan’s ongoing nuclear brinksmanship lends an eerie historical resonance to Mohsin Hamid’s thoroughly enjoyable and tautly constructed debut novel, a subtly audacious work and prodigious descendant of hard-boiled lit and film noir. Dense with sharp Chandleresque similes (“wrapped inside my painkillers and the shell of my scars and bruises like a slow-growing larva”) and a Hammett-like penchant for deploying weather as a psychological barometer, Moth Smoke is a steamy (in both senses) and often darkly amusing book about sex, drugs, and class warfare in postcolonial Asia.
A Pakistan-raised New Yorker, Hamid struc- tures Moth Smoke somewhat like a murder trial. On the stand is Daru, a cynical, hash-loving 28-year-old bank drone and onetime boxer now accused of running over a child. Daru relates his decline and fall after being fired from the bank (a moment he compares to a “quick sidestep in un- reality, like meeting your mother when you’re tripping”) in chapters that alternate with self-justifying monologues by the witnesses against him. Moth Smoke foregrounds Daru’s slacker predisposition and resentment toward the aristocrats (with whom he associates but cannot join) against an apocalyptic background of nuclear testing reminiscent of Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film-version take on Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly.
An underdog redress occurs when Daru steals his rich best friend Ozi’s wife, Mumtaz, a discontented young mother who has become a clandestine investigative reporter since moving back to Lahore, Pakistan, from New York. Their romance generates big heat and smoke and Hamid leaves no nook or cranny of the fire metaphor unexplored, reinvigorating its archetypal metaforce with everything from the titular play of moth and flame to the apocalyptic burnout of nuclear war. When Daru and Mumtaz meet for the first time, she leaves a smoldering cigarette butt in an ashtray bed. “I crush mine into it,” relates Daru, “grinding until both stop burning.” Daru’s meager resources wane as the couple’s passion intensifies, and their relationship—not unlike that binding India to Pakistan—threatens to destroy everyone around them. Halfway through the book, to cool things off, Hamid tosses in an only slightly ironic chapter titled “what lovely weather we’re having (or the importance of air-conditioning),” in which Daru’s former economics professor discusses how Pakistan’s elite “have managed to re-create for themselves the living conditions of say, Sweden, without leaving the dusty plains of the subcontinent.”
Although the novel is woozy with alcohol, hash, Ecstasy, and heroin, they serve less as pleasure vehicles than as tokens of societal decadence. Daru’s social status plummets even further when he becomes a part-time dealer to the rich kids who overpay for his wares. Maneuvering in the background are the hardcore Islamic “fundos,” whose one-size-fits-all fanaticism, Hamid suggests, possesses seductive qualities no less compelling than Ozi’s self-righteous aria justifying his own corruption (he’s not a bad guy, he argues; he just makes people jealous). As for Daru, Hamid leaves unclear whether it’s class rancor that drives him over the brink, or the displaced nurture he derives from bad-mother Mumtaz. The Falstaffian figure of Murad Badshah, the rickshaw driver and dealer who enlists Daru in a wack scheme to knock over upscale boutiques, offers comedy relief. “Armed robbery is like public speaking,” says Murad. “Both offer a brief period in the limelight, the risk of public humiliation, the opportunity for crowd control.” Daru’s moment in the spotlight goes awry during a suspenseful scene whose panicky, botched outcome is pure Tarantino mishegaas. By novel’s end, the morally and financially impoverished Daru—all thirst, no quenching, and recently introduced to the joys of heroin smoke—amuses himself by playing desultory games of “moth badminton” with the insects that have overtaken his barren home. The atmosphere is vacant and corrupt, the sense of loss reminiscent of the empty, overgrown swimming pools that populate J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, the sort of slipstream masterpiece Hamid obviously admires. But Moth Smoke reads more like a tough and sinewy B movie, the kind whose dark complexities expand the more you ponder it.