With unabashed echoes of all the great "river novels," from Huckleberry Finn to Heart of Darkness to The African Queen, Ballard (The Crystal World, Crash, Empire of the Sun) offers here a poetic, stately, oddly half-involving tale--part escape/chase adventure, part symbolic soul-journey. The narrator-seeker is British doctor Mallory, in charge of the WHO clinic at Port-la-Nouvelle in an unnamed nation "in the dead heart of the African continent," bordering on Chad and the Sudan. The area has been depopulated by the spreading Sahara desert, by civil war between government forces (vile) and Marxist guerrillas (worse). So, virtually without patients, Mallory has focused instead on a local engineering project, seemingly doomed: digging wells for irrigation. Obsessed, he refuses to leave Port-la-Nouvelle--despite a near-fatal encounter with the guerrillas, despite the obnoxious arrival of pathetic Prof. Sanger, a has-been purveyor of pop-science who's desperate to generate some sort of media-event for a TV documentary. And Mallory's mania escalates when, for unclear reasons (earthquake? wayward engineering?), a brand-new river appears precisely where Mallory has been digging! Mallory reacts to this quasi-miracle with wild ambivalence. He believes the river is his creation; he's soon referring to it as "the Mallory." Yet he now determines to destroy it--to follow it north to its source, to dam it up so that it irrigates the Sahara. (Or "was my attempt to scotch the river nothing more than the last installment of that suicide by easy payments on which I had embarked by first choosing to work at Port-la-Nouvelle?") Teaming up with 12-year-old Noon, a sometime girl-guerrilla, Mallory steals a ferry and sails upriver--chased via helicopter by reptilian Capt. Kagwa, whose beloved Mercedes limo (totem of his power-grabbing dreams) is on the ferry. Also in pursuit: feverish Prof. Sanger and his equally frail Indian sidekick; wildlife activist Nora Warrender, out to avenge the guerrillas' murder of her husband; plus, of course, the guerrillas themselves. And the ensuing action--boat collisions, copter attacks, exploding dams--is textured with Mallory's sporadic self-analysis. . .and with his increasingly erotic attachment to Noon, who seems to embody the traumatized spirit of native populations. Mallory's inner turmoil, with constant mood-shifts and philosophical flip-flops, is often more tiresome than compelling--and never connected to a credible psycho-portrait. The novel's mixture of tones--satiric, symbolic, derring-do-ish--doesn't quite ignite. Still, if rather murky in overall thrust, chapter by chapter this is rich, strange work from a distinctive storyteller: elegantly phrased, vividly imagined, and rescued from portentousness by a deeply ironic tilt.