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A dark and dreamlike novel of the erosion of a man's honor in the stifling heat of a southern Italian town. As he does in past efforts--Cuban Passage (1982), the non-fiction Voices of the Old Sea (1985)--Lewis creates vivid characters; here, a town's worth of highly mannered individuals who do what they must to survive in this barren and decimated region. WW II has just ended and Manning, a British officer, is posted--with vaguely described duties--to Malevento (bad wind), a remote and typhusravaged town. His predecessor, by way of welcome, presents him with a list of petty bribes that are the town's currency: mozzarella cheese for one official, louse powder for the local marchesa. Determined to avoid this obligation-counterobligation two-step, Manning attempts to ignore the overtures of villagers (the hallucinatory progression of offerings includes a bagged vulture, supposedly a tasty delicacy), and simply do his job. But when he tries to capture a suspected war criminal and to redeem a man unjustly imprisoned, his straightforward tactics smack up against a centuries-old code of indirection, Worn thin by drink, disease and confusion, Manning almost unthinkingly compromises: he writes his host/landlord an out-of-order pass, and he allows himself to be seduced by a stupid and sensual married woman. And from here he's caught in the snarl of a vaguely planned cover-up. On one level, a black comedy of keenly perceived and revealed idiosyncrasy; on another, a sympathetic and multi-textured tale of perpetually struggling villagers and of a man who would be honorable, but whose moral universe caves in with the sweat-drenched logic of nightmare. Gripping and often bleakly splendid.

Pub Date: April 26th, 1986
Publisher: Carroll & Graf