Theroux's new novel, like Girls at Play (1968) and Fong and the Indians (1967), is a bitter comedy of cross-purposes set in an emerging African nation. This time it's Malawe, a nation in name only and fairly content as such, which impassively hosts a parade of white redeemers. The hero (a creation that few other writers could bring off) is Calvin Mullet, an insurance salesman from Worcester, Mass., who goes forth in simple good faith to insure the Africans for Homemakers' Mutual. As equipage he takes promotional Fens and calendars, six pairs of extra eyeglasses, a bristly wife who doesn't linger, and an unsuspected empathy for the uninsurables of the world. Marais, a doctrinaire young white revolutionary, is meanwhile martialing black forces in the jungle and pulling rank to enforce his ideal of a rank-free army; while Major Beaglehole, a dotty colonial, bides his time in Aunt Zeeba's Eating House, dreaming over the British W.C. and receiving drinks from the sinister waiter Jarvis. Their paths intersect in unexpectedly absurd ways: captured by the guerrillas, Calvin tries to sell Marais a policy; later a bit of Calvin's ""creative writing,"" pilfered for a tract, provokes mutiny in Marais' army; and there is a large cast of Africans assisting or incomprehensibly resisting. The end leaves everyone with failed expectations and worse -- except readers who will again find the exceptional in this disarmingly gifted writer.