Mewshaw's previous morality tales have been sparked by some humor or genuine feeling--but this one, though readably brief, is all message and no charm. Semi-failed artist Jack Cordell, estranged from wife and son, is doing the alienated routine in the South of France (""I don't feel anything any more"") when his old school-buddy, film director Tucker, begs Jack to take a fat salary to be his art-director on location in Africa. Out of friendship and financial need, Jack agrees; so it's off to the deserts of Maliteta with a clutch of the Ugliest Americans imaginable--selfish, gross, and decadent film folk whose overfed, money-to-burn ways are contrasted against the native poverty with heavyhanded irony. The sole exception is chic but sincere actress Helen, whom Jack beds. And she becomes Jack's only American ally when he begins to suspect, while scouting locations and encountering a dead camel being desperately cut up for food, that the Malitetan government is allowing whole Bedouin refugee camps to die from a famine that's almost invisible from the fancy, food-filled hotel where the film people are staying. ""I feel responsible,"" says Helen. ""I do too,"" says Jack. So, when the film honchos refuse to make waves (they've got a great deal with the government), Jack and Helen risk all to help a native filmmaker smuggle out cinematic proof of the wretched starvation--and they get caught in the middle of a fairly extraneous shoot-out between the Malitetan Liberation Front and the government forces. Some of the film-creep dialogue crackles, but Jack is a bland, self-righteous bore; and Mewshaw stacks this deck of placards so thoroughly that all the suspense has to be generated artificially. Oppressively goody-goody.