A compact, multivoiced novel set in Senegal, 1985, concerning an American black man’s exploration of his sexual and racial identity.
Bertrand Milworth, a 30ish anthropologist, is in Senegal gathering African “UL’s”—urban legends. He shares a home with a Senegalese family consisting of Alaine, his wife Kene, and their young daughter. Bert, whose first language is English, and the Senegalese family, whose first language is Wolof, communicate primarily in stilted French and English. This makes meanings approximate or blurry, and the cognitive blur affects Bert’s vision of everything going on around him in the small village. His dreaming, recorded in abundant (and often unnecessary) detail, is clearer—despite or perhaps because of its symbolic nature: Meanwhile, Bert is sexually attracted to Kene. Through the use of letters to and from home, transcripts of telephone conversations, journal entries, dream records, and first-, second-, and third-person narration, the reader learns that Bert is in a troubled marriage—and this research project isn’t helping. His wife Rose, a white woman with whom Bert has never lived, remains behind in Colorado with a painful insight into Bert’s real reasons for traveling to Senegal. Bert has never had sexual relations with a black woman. Nor, we learn, has he ever had dreams, at least dreams he could remember, but in Senegal his dream life is so rich that it impinges on his waking. What has he imagined, and what has actually happened? He begins to suspect Alaine of working magic against him, Kene of seducing him—at least in his dreams, and his guide Idrissa of deceiving him. A quest for palm wine, a passage that recalls the sickening menace of Paul Bowles’s North African stories, leads Bert into precincts that tweak his growing paranoia.
An ambitious expansion upon two earlier Senegalese stories (White Boys, 1998, etc.). Its intrigue and themes might have paid off more fully with a less splintered narrative approach.