Pitting a lofty intellectual theme against Hollywood's sleaze and pretension, this elegant yet often bawdy novel has a grand time demolishing the barriers between ``high'' and ``low'' art. Former Booker finalist Cartwright (Look At It This Way, 1993, etc.) has magazine editor Tim Curtiz taking on an assignment from one of Hollywood's tonier producers, S.O. Letterman: to write a screenplay about Claudia Cohn-Casson, an anthropologist who interrupted her studies of Kenya's Masai people to return to Paris and almost certain death in a Nazi concentration camp. Letterman imagines an Out of Africa crossed with Night and Fog and Dances with Wolves: uplifting, romantic, weepy, stunningly picturesque, politically correct (and no Meryl Streep). But as Tim visits Claudia's Masai and Kenyan friends from the 1930's, a tale emerges of pure motives ruined by multiple betrayals, hearts crossed by political calculations; in fact, it's quite similar to what we see going on between Tim and his unfaithful girlfriend, as well as between Letterman and the French actress he pretends to cast (who sleeps with him with the understanding of her husband). Further dÇjÖ vu: Having arranged for a Hollywood producer a Masai lion hunt that ended in death and disaster, Claudia allowed her guilt to drive her back to Paris and death, along with her brother and her Vichy-collaborationist father. The circularity is nearly endless, yet we do not mind; although the author seems to be pushing his luck, he pulls off his high-wire act without a stumble, thanks largely to his limpid, unpretentious prose--and to the characters of the Masai, whose dignity glows like a beacon out of the spiritual darkness of the modern age. The promiscuity of human beings and their self-serving natures has rarely been sent up so well. But the final surprise in this novel--as well as the movie called Masai Dreams, starring Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson--in the end does seem, when Tim sees it, to exalt that thing called the human spirit. Funny, knowing, appalling, and moving.