A labored, jokey tale with an African setting. Here, cultural identity is validated after a number of picaresque events--dressed up in threadbare anthropological drag--push the narrative to a banal epiphany. Van Wert's (Tales for Expectant Fathers, 1982, etc.) northeastern Nigeria is a place only loosely connected with the real thing: The African milieu is sketchy, the details vague. It's the idea that matters here, far more than the setting, as Van Wert seeks to explore what happens to cultural identity when it is threatened by foreign influences. When young Kimbene becomes king of his Ibo tribe, his only distinctive monarchical feature is his height: To reign, an Ibo king must tower above the rest. Initially, Kimbene's ambitions are unfocused, his rural kingdom small--the tribe's traditional enemy, the Edo, is only five miles away--but Kimbene has a pure heart, a wise friend, Ngugi, and he will grow on the job. He acquires his first stool wives (on official occasions, they sit on wooden stools just behind the king) and an irritating sidekick who talks in palindromes; rids the tribe of a noisome rapist; wages war with the Edo in ways more Monty Pythonish than realistic; and is then temporarily seduced by Western excess when oil is found in his kingdom. The discovery makes for set-piece appearances by shady speculators, insensitive missionaries, a team from Sixty Minutes, and Japanese businessmen seeking to build a camera factory. When the oil dries up, Kimbene gratefully readjusts to the older, slower pace, but he has to fight another great battle--this one of wits--before he discovers what kind of king and man he really is. As his now-numerous and aging stool wives agree: ``Men like to be myths. They dream of nothing else, we are left to be the reality.'' A high concept that tries hard to dazzle and amuse but, unfortunately, doesn't.