The cover of the American edition of Last Man In Tower features a design ripped straight from Saul Bass’ Vertigo poster, but Aravind Adiga’s follow-up to the Man Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger doesn’t entirely match Alfred Hitchcock’s edge-of-your-seat thrills. Instead, it aims for a slow boil, like two tectonic plates building up enormous pressure to an earthquake.
Dharmen Shah is a hotshot real-estate developer, tearing down slums and decrepit buildings and putting up high-rise skyscrapers all over Mumbai. For his crowning achievement, The Shanghai, he wants to demolish the Vishram Co-operative Society, a once-pristine two-building compound that has deteriorated. Shah offers each resident around $330,000 to make way for his overzealous race against other developers for the Mumbai skyline. The one holdout: retired teacher Masterji, who digs in for the long haul. His friends, neighbors, and family try every method they can think of to get him to cave and take the money along with the rest of them, but to no avail. It’s a case of unstoppable force against immovable object.
One of many brilliant scenes has Masterji walking by one of Shah’s teeming construction sites, which is rushing to complete initial work before monsoon season. He imagines the completed shining-glass-and-metal building that will tower above the slums, but at the same time, notes every shoddy building flaw in the now-visible inner framework. This is a microcosm of Adiga’s larger statement about modern India that bursts out of Last Man In Tower—he sees it as a gleaming building that projects a positive, wealthy image, with a crippled support system on the inside.
Adiga displays a knack for whirling through several characters’ minds over the course of a chapter, jumping between tower residents to show their motives and examine how modern Mumbai has amplified their shortcomings. The middle class is almost nonexistent, successful enough to live in high-rises, but susceptible to a snake-oil salesman offering a choice between signatures on the line or a knife in the back.
The White Tiger was a lurid, Horatio Alger-style tale comparing rural India to Delhi. Last Man In Tower is far more satirical, constantly mocking how self-important every resident of the Vishram Society seems, and just how desperately they wish to throw their homes away for the uncertain promises of a real-estate developer. Adiga damns the corruption present at all levels that allows such construction to destroy the lives of gullible, downtrodden residents. His characters are surprisingly complicated. Though he describes Shah as a moderately successful but overly garish and arrogant braggart, he comes from a background that lends itself easily to showing off. It’s an impressive bit of mirroring when Adiga peels back the family tragedies that haunt both Shah and Masterji, leaving them with disobedient sons and too many regrets.
Last Man In Tower does have its flaws. The first hundred pages tick by slowly as the boulder gets rolling, and all the italicized terms about Indian food resign some sections to the doomed category of ethnic literature obsessed with detailing cuisine. Still, Adiga delivers a second novel that stands right along with his debut, and deserves to be considered as one of the year’s best.