A former Peace Corps volunteer recalls his battles with deafness, bureaucracy, sex, violence and hopelessness during his mid-1990s tour in Zambia.
Swiller’s debut recounts adventures most extraordinary in language most ordinary. Even at moments of high emotion, danger or revulsion, he cannot seem to venture outside the tent of convention to say something novel. When, for example, an angry man chops off the leg of a boy who has stolen a single fish, Swiller can manage only, “I couldn’t get my mind around it.” These and other inanities decorate just about every significant moment—and there are many, for his tale is harrowing and ominous. He begins near the end, holed up in the dark at the home of his best friend Jere, both of them feebly armed, while on the other side of the door a mob of angry villagers led by a baddie named Boniface threatened to kill them. The fairly innocuous resolution comes 200 pages later, but first Swiller cuts away to fill in background about his lifelong struggles with deafness, his desultory pathway through high school, Yale and Gallaudet and his decision to join the Peace Corps. He went to Zambia to help the villagers in Mununga dig wells, but the local mores and politics were almost too much to cope with, particularly for someone who had to read lips to supplement his powerful hearing aids. He accomplished little—perhaps all that was possible. He was (falsely) accused of deflowering a local lovely, got involved with a nurse (it didn’t work out), drank a lot, learned the local language, met Jere, who worked in the clinic, fended off fathers who wanted him to marry their daughters, was mugged, threatened, hit with a rock and eventually went back to America.
Mediocre prose effectively blunts the powerful blows that these often shocking experiences could have delivered.