THE VIPER TREE by Joseph Monninger

THE VIPER TREE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In his fifth outing, Monninger (Second Season, 1987; New Jersey, 1986, etc.) turns away from domestic suburbia and sets his fleet-in-the-telling but somewhat stretched tale in western Africa--where a deserter from the Nazi army may or may not be another Christ, miracles and all. It's 1941 when young Frederich Loebus smuggles himself out of Hitler's Europe, buys his way by ship's hold to the African coast, and--near death after a long and painful solitude in the desert--is discovered by a group of natives who deposit him at the door of a Christian mission in what's then French-controlled Upper Volta. The nuns there protect and nurse him even as the local government prefect places him under arrest--an action that's finally baffled by Loebus's last-minute and maybe even miraculous escape. By this time one of the nuns has given herself to him sexually, another has bathed his feet, and seeming parallels with the life of Christ have tumbled plentifully into the story: back on the seacoast, Loebus was given credit for a native tribe's unusual and multitudinous catch of fish; farther inland, after merciless persecutions by nomads, he brought a drowned boy back to life; and now, at the mission (where Loebus for a time is nailed by one finger to the church wall in an appeal for sanctuary), one nun sees a halo, and another is certain that Loebus can communicate with the animals. Is he really a man of miracles, touched by the finger of God? Well, for 25 unnarrated years he works in the interior as a kind of priest-shaman, and his story is picked up again only with his death in 1977, when a hapless American hydraulic engineer named Hawley is tricked into posing as a priest and "hearing" Loebus's last confession. Magic-practicing natives believe Hawley to have thus inherited Loebus's soul, and the novel's last third is the story of Hawley's efforts to escape this maybe-divine legacy--and to survive the hideous and ruthless efforts of local magic-worshippers to steal the very soul out of him. A candidate for riveting interest to occult-ponderers; for others, though, here is the Africa of Conrad and Greene skillfully reduced to entertainment-level.

ISBN: 671-70085-5
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
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