The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Reversible Errors By Scott Thurow, Picador, Rs 395

A palate used to the exotic aroma of cardamom, cloves and other spices is hardly likely to appreciate a wholesome hamburger. Consider this workmanlike dish, nevertheless — a simple cut bun with a sprinkling of sesame, a rash of green, a chop of meat, a dash of mustard and a toss of sauce.

Our American friends report that years of research in the handling of food and all the wisdom accumulated in culinary manuals swear by this simple delight. It serves wonderfully well in a climate that is cold, fast and dispassionate. It is no surprise then that most American thrillers follow this formula. Unfortunately, Reversible Errors does not belong to this category — rather, it is made up of a mouldy bun, an overdone chop and limp lettuce.

The novel is set in the state of West Virginia in northern United States of America where capital punishment continues to be part of the legal framework. Its central protagonist is a black felon on the death row. That is a smart backdrop indeed considering that the death row and the psychology of those about to die are today well-navigated areas.

However, the narrative possibilities it presents of inducing tension are just not realized. This is primarily because another convict, also on death row, confesses to suffering from terminal cancer. The problem with this novel is that there are far too many subplots that do not quite gel, leaving readers with a series of glimpses into the realities of the American way of life.

Thus readers are told of not-quite-honourable women judges who smoke heroin, of grim police torture that does not leave any visible marks, and spindly men who have active sex lives.

Then there are the usual courtroom battles, with the cut and thrust of legal jargon. These sections of the novel, where it is implied that many people muddle their way through a legal career with the central objective of looking good in court, are comic and extremely well-constructed. Unfortunately, amidst all the profusion of detail, detail and some more detail, nothing is left to the reader’s imagination. Whether it is an autopsy, the legal framework or sex. The effect is jarring, to put it mildly.

I suspect even Scott Thurow is worried about this and so weaves in a romantic thread of human feeling and values into Reversible Errors. This gives the novel a disjointed feel — something like enacting Romeo and Juliet with a Jung or a Freud prompting from the aisles.

Just as Indians have the pet phrase — “all is maya” — this story too works on the catchy phrase, “all errors are reversible”. This mantra intrudes into the lives of an investigator, an attorney, a judge and a prison-inmate, in a canvas spread over 10 years. An undercurrent of pathos underlies each character, attributable, in some cases, to their crimes such as murder and felony, and in others to physical handicaps and perhaps even defective parenting. I guess these are the errors Thurow addresses and makes an attempt to reverse.

For want of a better technique and perhaps to help add speed to the narration or to hold the reader’s attention, Thurow begins his novel with some flashbacks with dates and a genealogical table. His characters are also given to musing a lot. The genealogical tables introduce the characters and also delineate their inter-relationships. Readers will need to refer to the latter constantly, at times even use a pencil to mark the connections.

But do the errors get reversed' Half-way through the book I didn’t really care. The chop was over grilled and the bread tasteless.

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