THE COUP by John Updike


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Updike's long interest in African literature was bound to up and produce something like this eventually. Hakim Felix Ellellou, college-educated in Wisconsin, is the dictator of Kush (called Noire when it was French), a sub-Saharan dustbowl of such proportions that even the government doesn't know what's going on in some of the distanter reaches. By dint of a cleverly deduced belief in government-by-mythology, Ellellou rules quite nicely, thank you; things are kept under control by Islam, a Russian-cozy socialism (the Soviets have got a secret missile base planted in the drought-parched, famine-reeling north), and Ellellou's penchant for incognito tours of the country. When the Americans try sending in food aid (Kix, Total, and other junk cereals), Ellellou has the stuff burned. But the Americans are not so easily daunted; a deal for oil-leasing rights is secretly being negotiated by Ellellou's second-in-command, a technocrat with one eye on the World Bank. And suddenly there are signs--like rock music, jeans, Women's Lib, and MacDonalds--that speak of change for Kush. This being Updike, all the Africana fits tight as a glove, well-researched and intellectually digested. (The Africans, for instance, speak in an excruciatingly rhetorical style, counterpointed by the hilarious folksiness of the Americans, one of whom is Candace, Ellellou's third wife of four, whom he met in Wisconsin and brought home.) The general play of intelligence over this novel's surfaces is exquisite; the wry, moralistic denouement--America wins, but what?--is combed into lots of smart political, sociological, or economic opinions. But Updike is not basically a comic writer--comedy makes him tighten his grip and get manically inventive and crabbed; so whole sections here are as hard as walnuts to get through. As intellectual tour de force, The Coup scores fairly well. As serious work, even serious comedy, it never invites any species of emotional involvement--and never straightens out its curlicues enough to hit home.
Pub Date: Dec. 7th, 1978
ISBN: 0449242595
Page count: 324pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1978


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