Nine stories explore the dark years of the late ’80s in Sierra Leone (where the author was a Peace Corps volunteer), when corruption flourished, the government broke down, and the country imploded.
Novelist McCauley (The Tuning Over, 1998) is an accomplished scene-setter as well as chronicler of the dispiriting relations between white expats and the local Africans struggling to survive the increasing lawlessness. The heat is palpable here (“the prickly heat was burning across my back”), the squalor visible (“a small yard filled with broken hardware, motorcycle frames, rusting bed springs”), and the people desperate (“Fouday’s wounds had been caused by his grandmother. She’d tied him, hands and feet, to keep him from running off to find his father”). McCauley’s protagonists evoke generic white men in Africa, disillusioned and cynical because their efforts to do good are thwarted by locals who bribe and steal to survive. In “Palaver,” Hunter is threatened with prison unless he pays a bribe to the police when he reports a crime, and in “The Turning Over,” project manager and pot-smoking Kelley realizes that all his work with local fisherman will be undone when he’s replaced by a corrupt local official. An edgy and insecure American aid worker in “The Mix” is responsible for the drowning of the captain and crew of a boat when he issues orders of his own, and in “Need,” the title and most nuanced story, Moody, though he thinks an educated young man is lying like all the rest, sells him some gasoline, which is currently in short supply, then finds himself drawn into the man’s life and sexually attracted to his English wife. In perhaps the most disturbing tale, “Hungry de Catch Me,” an African entertains hotel guests by stuffing his mouth with money and then spinning around, until one evening he loses his balance and falls.
Dark stories that are better at evoking than illuminating.