Jeet Thayil’s previous novel, The Book of Chocolate Saints, an account of a fictional Indian artist and poet told in a multiplicity of voices, was a tub filled with delicious things. It also contained quite a lot of bran. His follow-up, Low, is slimmer and more condensed, its scope just a few days rather than a lifetime, with a sole narrator, a troubled Indian poet named Dominic Ullis.
We first encounter him on a plane to Bombay (his preferred name for the city). He has spent the flight from Delhi in a haze (‘The Ambien bloomed soon after take-off, all 20 milligrams at once’) and awakes to find his bejewelled neighbour, Payal, stealing the cutlery — presumably they’re in first class. She either mishears his name or assigns him ‘Ulysses’, the first of many literary references. His Penelope’s ashes reside in a box in his hand luggage.
In Bombay — a city Ullis knows well without loving it — he will score drugs, mourn his wife and search for somewhere to scatter her. A pukka ‘Englishwallah’, he wanders with patrician ease from street dealers to society bashes, from dirty drugs to fine wine, his catchphrase a languid ‘I don’t see why not’. Hang on a minute: a well-read druggie of piercing intelligence and wit rattling round a big city clutching a box of ashes… doesn’t that remind you of something? Swap Bombay for New York, the loved wife’s ashes for the despised dad’s, and we could almost be reading Bad News by Edward St Aubyn, recently televised with Benedict Cumberbatch as the ravaged protagonist Patrick Melrose. That story also begins on a plane. Even Ullis’s dealer Danny happens to be a black musician, like St Aubyn’s memorable Chilly Willy.
Beyond any plot, it’s the narrator’s default tone, dry and punctiliously polite, that most piercingly brings the earlier book to mind. But if Thayil can’t quite match St Aubyn’s Rimbaldian evocation of fleeting drug highs, Low has significant merits of its own. It’s a novel of our times as opposed to St Aubyn’s tale of the decadent 1980s. Ullis is fascinated by Trump, craving a regular hit of his belligerent inanity as much as heroin, and everywhere he fatefully observes the desecration of the environment.
Low is beautifully written, intelligent and gripping, and elicits compassion for a character who is pitifully adrift, despite what some might see as his disqualifying privilege.