JACOB'S LADDER by John A. Williams


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Foul CIA doings in 1960's West Africa--in a sporadically intriguing political novel that ultimately devotes too much attention to the familiar, predictable Ugly-American scenario, too little to the half-developed, Graham-Greene-ish character textures. It is 1966 in Liberia-like ""Pandemi,"" a republic led by former slaves (and their descendants) since the 1840's--but only now, under young President Chuma Fasseke, asserting ""true independence."" Fasseke declines Western arms, flirts with Soviet/Chinese support, and has semi-secretly built a nuclear power plant in the jungle. So, to establish better ties, the US sends Major Jake Henry to Pandemi as a military attachÉ: not only is Jake black, but, as the son of a missionary, he grew up in Pandemi, a boyhood chum of Chuma Fasseke's. But Jake soon realizes that the local CIA chief is planning to deal with Fasseke much more directly--by arranging for a coup and destroying the power plant. Furthermore, Jake himself is being used as a mere--and highly expendable--decoy in the plot. And he'll barely escape CIA assassination in the coup/chase finale, thanks to quick, tough action by a Pandemi general. Williams (!Click Song, The Man Who Cried I Am) gives Jake potentially interesting identity-conflicts: bitter over his father's treatment by the black church hierarchy, he has joined the white establishment as a career military-man--only to find himself ""The Man"" to Africans and other blacks. A few supporting characters--a black American chanteuse (mistress of a neighboring nation's leader), Pandemi's new poet-ambassador to the US--also suggest provocative socio-psychological lines of study. But the portraits remain sketchy, with no significant interaction; the central figures, including passive, disillusioned Jake, play only minor roles in the obvious, message-heavy action. (There's undeniable timeliness in the vignettes involving gung-ho US operatives and impotent State Dept. types.) So, though occasionally vivid and often atmospheric, this talky quasi-thriller promises the rich personality of Williams' best fiction--yet delivers little more than simplistic condemnations of racist, ruthless American activity in the Third World.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1987
Publisher: Thunder's Mouth--dist. by Persea