Powerfully despairing, Graham Greenelike tale of romance and alienation in the blasted African bush, from our foremost chronicler of Washington's faceless bureaucracy and the lives it so blithely consumes (Last Train from Berlin, 1994, etc.). As the Vietnam War makes a mess of US foreign policy in Southeast Asia, footloose American foreign-service careerist Hugh Mathews finds himself transferred from Eden-like, pre-invasion Lebanon to a grim, gloomy diplomatic compound in the former Belgian Congo. A bachelor with little patience for political frippery (he likens diplomacy to ``an old whore trying to remember when she'd been a virgin''), he's resigned to terminal futility--until he falls for Blakely Ogden, the bronzed, blond wife of the embassy's insipid consul, Jeffrey. Childless and stifled by a loveless marriage, Blakely confides her fascination with tribal masks and other artifacts of African culture. Hoping to experience something more than the sublime ennui of diplomatic protocol, and perhaps discover some interesting antiques for his friend, Mathews begins to run pointless errands in the blighted, inhospitable countryside with fellow loner Ken McAuliffe, a burned-out idealist who ``like most incorrigibly honest people, had no sense of the mystery in himself.'' After a passionate affair with Mathews, Blakely flees her lover and her husband, leaving no forwarding address. Then McAuliffe quits the service and is blown to bits by a land mine while helping refugees escape, and Mathews finds himself banished for his misdemeanors- -among them the discovery that his local drinking buddies are outlaw revolutionaries. He ends up back in Washington with a dull desk job. Overwhelmed by a life of so much futility, Mathews is suddenly reborn when he stumbles on Blakely again. Together, the two finally experience what passes for contentment in the rustic Virginia woods. Thick with bilious resentment and impotent rage: a trenchant, eloquently crafted drama of lost souls who find salvation where they least expect it.