THE ROAD BUILDER by Nicholas Hershenow


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A labored debut from Hershenow, a former Peace Corps volunteer in 1980s Zaire, offers a prolonged saga of palm-oil harvesting and existential mystery in Africa.

Freighted with tinny philosophical dialogue, the story begins as Will and Kate—both somewhere in their 30s, both vaguely drifting in life—are summoned to San Francisco to attend their supposedly dying Uncle Pers. He hangs tough and fails to die, then persuades Will and Kate to venture to Africa and enter into palm-oil manufacture. Apparently Pers wants to offer work to his frustrated niece and her husband, and he also needs some research done for the memoir he's writing about his time in Africa harvesting palm oil some 30 years before. Many meditations on both the usefulness and the irrelevancy of the past follow. Landing in Africa and arriving at the processing plant, Kate and Will are faced with a "medieval allegory of Hell, the oldest terrors fused with industrial technology but still relying on elemental and primitive forces and devices—steam and fire, grinding iron, boiling oil." With the help of some thinly evoked secondary characters, they fit right in and set to work. As it happens, the locals are treated shabbily by the overseeing company, and Kate and Will engage in a bit of illicit smuggling. They hear a good deal about the Road Builder, a near-mythic figure from the village's past with quixotic ambitions and opaque purposes who turns out to be (of course) Uncle Pers. After faking his death in San Francisco, Pers, now named Boris, returns to settle the mysteries and finish the Road Builder's work. All of which sounds interesting enough, and it might be if there were any exciting incidents or full-fledged characters to enliven this 400+-page slog.

Obviously written from personal experience, but though the author may perceive the beauty inherent in Africa's people and industries, he fails to convey it to the reader.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-399-14754-3
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: BlueHen/Putnam
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2001


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