In Smith’s debut novel, a former American soldier hiding out in a small African country can’t escape the ghosts of his past.
Sgt. Cooper Chance, an Army deserter, spends his days in Lalanga drinking cheap gin in a dive. He makes a promise to Lulay, a young girl who sells herself each night, to someday take her away. What little money Chance makes comes from buying smuggled diamonds from a blind boy and his sister and turning a meager profit at an Arab merchant’s shop. There, he meets the merchant’s son, Sadiq, with whom he becomes quickly enamored; he longs to accidentally run into him at a local hammam (a bathhouse and massage parlor). But Chance’s life is confounded by a strange man named Sam Brown, who offers him a way to return to the United States with an honorable discharge—if he’ll use his sharpshooter skills again. Smith’s first effort is a poignant experience. He wastes no time in deftly establishing the atmosphere: ice-cold glasses set against sweaty brows in the blistering heat, with frequent power outages that leave Chance lying on the bed as he waits for the ceiling fan to come back to life. Characters are enhanced by their association with Chance’s past: His need to save Lulay recalls his kid sister being tormented by their father, while his wariness of forming affection for Sadiq echoes a horribly failed relationship in the Army. At its best, the book is slightly refitted yet indomitable noir: the protagonist knocked out cold and tossed in jail; Lulay’s constant pleading for help like a vulnerable dame “hiring” Chance; and the mysterious Sadiq calling to mind a femme—or homme—fatale. The novel, a quick read at a little over 200 pages, is rounded out by sharp, cynical dialogue: “Where’s this?” Chance asks, pointing to a postcard; “Somewhere else,” he’s told.