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WHITE MAN'S GRAVE by Richard Dooling

WHITE MAN'S GRAVE

By Richard Dooling

Pub Date: June 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0-374-28951-4
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 Using the unprincipled excesses of lawyers and insurers as both a background against which supposedly bizarre elements of West African culture are displayed and as a big fat target for ridicule, Dooling's (Critical Care, 1992) ethnographic thriller/satire set in present-day Sierra Leone portrays politics and witchcraft as two sides of a single coin. The novel's progress depends upon the disappearance during an eruption of political strife of Peace Corps volunteer Michael Killigan and upon attempts to find and save him by his father, a powerful bankruptcy warrior, and his best friend Boone Westfall, who is fleeing scut-work in a family insurance business. There's a good deal of playing to the cheap seats, and the people in the story tend to be convenience characters commanded by the plot. Boone, for instance, is innocent but cool, a morally superior white boy who is nevertheless perfectly sympathetic to the concerns of West Africans, tolerant of their strange ways, but unwilling to be conned by mumbo-jumbo in any language--i.e., a Good American. He stumbles into a land of disease, poverty, magic, and violence, but because he is resourceful and gutsy, he is able to meet all the right people, say and do all the right things, suffer sickness and torture with the aplomb of James Bond. As generous and detailed with descriptions and explanations of the Mende tribe's folkways (especially witchcraft and the ``pulling'' and ``putting'' of curses) as it is with grinning outrage at the vacuousness, folly, and cruelty of North American versions of same, the novel is laudable as a fictional travel essay, passable as an acerbic melodrama, less interesting when it tries to be profound. (Book-of-the-Month Club/Quality Paperback Book Club featured selections; author tour)