Operation Atropos, ostensibly CIA-sponsored under the direction of a Cairo-based spy named Colfax, intends to run guns to an Islamic rebel faction fighting in Ethiopia. Charlie Gage, an ex-newspaperman, is recruited. And in the wastes of Bejaya, on the African horn near the Sudan border, Charlie begins to operate in the company of two other white recruits: Moody, a British career-officer-dropout, morally shaken after he committed a desert murder years before; and Norstrand, an imposingly large Minnesotan with a shaved head and a Nietzsche-complex. Norstrand--unsurprisingly--wins over the awe of the rebels with his language ability, his fearlessness, his craziness. Yet when the troops, under the wistful yet impotent Sheik Jima, win a great battle on a hill town but have no subsequent way to hold the position, Norstrand's hold-firm megalomania invites carnage (his own private version of which takes shape when he cold-bloodedly kills and mutilates five prisoners captured earlier). Caputo (A Rumor of War) clearly means this Conrad-styled novel to be a writhing, revolted testimony of folly, but Moody is the only interesting character, guilty enough already not to be in the market for yet more guilt. Gage is inert, the desert itself is statically vivid but never scene-setting, the narrative is heavily padded: ""If greed was the principal vice of the last century, the lust for power is the principal vice of this one; and Thomas Colfax was possessed by a need for power, a possession so strong it had consumed his morality, his compassion, and his sense of personal responsibility."" And Norstrand is too shallow and predictable a rogue superman to be the Mr. Kurtz of this would-be Heart of Darkness. Some serviceable action in the survival ordeal that follows the carnage--but ultimately this registers as serious, weighty, yet mostly lifeless imitation-Conrad.