Currently under arrest in his native Kenya, Ngugi has a strong reputation as one of the more political of contemporary African novelists; and that reputation is densely supported by this spacious story of a small Kenyan town's victimization by nationalist bureaucracy--the obliteration of its character by sham modernization. Sadness and anger are the two dominant chords. Ilmorog, a town so far out of the flow of the century that a bicycle there is commonly referred to as a ""metal horse,"" is dying from drought. A local delegation goes to Parliament, which turns the situation to the advantage of vested interests: they'll make a showplace out of Ilmorog, which has only asked for a little help with its crops. The formula for the local drink, a grain liquor, is signed over by coercion to a foreign-owned brewery. When the exploitation grows too grim to bear, someone kills three of the Kenyan directors of the brewery. Who did it? The local schoolteacher? A barmaid? A union leader? Unfortunately, Ngugi is as free with agit-prop polemic as he is with marvelous evocations of a harvest or with true, moving characters: whites are given names like Fraudsham or Six Swallow Bloodall (the book was partly written at the villa of the Soviet Writers Union in Yalta). His range stays strictly equal to his disgust. Americans will find the frequent Swahili-isms baffling and many of the references dimly alien; but the angry heat does transmit, passionately.