Tantalizing echoes of Achebe and Conrad in an ambitious first novel. Set in a nameless East African country, where an aging president has power for life and the official (and only) political party, NAFU, controls every aspect of life, the story is as much about the struggles of hapless Samuel Kimbu to find meaning in existence as an indictment of what the West and corrupt Africans have done to the continent. Samuel--a customs officer at the port of Mutara, where Arab dhows and freighters share dockage--spends his day examining lading bills and responding to queries from sea captains and merchants. A former merchant marine officer, unfairly punished for an accident, he dreams of returning to his beloved sea but instead finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue involving the CIA and Inspector Zulu, head of Security. Sent to Yemen as a spy, Samuel takes passage on a mysterious dhow that's supplying guns to a putative liberation group. He's caught, jumps ship, and nearly dies, but then is rescued--only to find that the promise to get him a job at sea was merely a ruse. Increasingly bitter, Samuel discovers next that his boss has enriched himself by smuggling, and that lethal chemicals from abroad have been dumped in Shebeen Town, the poorest quarter of the city. Forced to participate in an initially unsuccessful raid on the rebel group, he has, while their party awaits rescue, a brief affair with the daughter of the CIA official who's there to direct the operation. Back in Matara at his old job, Samuel has lost his faith in God and man--all that remains are the stories in us, ``as if every human in the last analysis were only a story told more or less well.'' Requisite local color and characters all well done, but the promising narrative peters out into a not-so-subtle--though understandably outraged--indictment of the usual villains. Still, Michelsen is a writer to watch.