If you read a lot of debut novels, you know there’s a category of these books written by earnest young men who have done stints with the Peace Corps or other NGOs working in developing nations. The hero is a young man with the Peace Corps or other NGO working in a developing nation. He arrives in a village, filled with idealism if also warily infused with postcolonial reservations. He will fall into doomed love with the local tragic beauty, a girl who personifies the battered yet invincible yet ultimately unknowable spirit of the land. The hero will often also befriend a young man who will, over the course of the novel, get more and more involved with the political opposition to the presiding dictator, until he is killed in a riot or fighting with an insurgent group. Then the hero will, by the very skin of his teeth, escape the war-torn nation, thinking disconsolately on the plane during the flight home that he has just had the most real and important experiences of his life, and now they are behind him.
As you can tell, I’m pretty jaded about this particular species of first novel, and it must be admitted that Tony D’Souza’s “Whiteman” would seem to fit the formula uncomfortably well. Yet somehow, this novel beats the odds: It manages to be quirky, seductive and funny, but most of all it has captured a shard of the host country in a way that NGO novels rarely do. The Ivory Coast village that young Jack Diaz lives in for a couple of years feels more real than Jack himself — which may sound like an artistic weakness, but it’s not. Africa, or rather this small corner of Africa, gets so thoroughly under Jack’s skin that he forgets to make this the story of how he was tested and learned the true nature of love, loss, want and independence, all those tedious lessons that would make the novel a routine coming-of-age saga about an earnest young man. Instead, “Whiteman” is really the story of an addict, a guy who gets hooked on a village, and of how he’s finally forced to kick the habit.
Jack — renamed Adama by the Africans — arrives in the Muslim village of Tigiso under the auspices of an outfit called the Potable Water Institute. The moment he arrives, he immediately proceeds to do absolutely nothing to improve the village’s supply of potable water. He continues this policy of nonaction on the water front until the day he leaves, though he does manage to train his closest friend in town, a young man named Mamadou, how to do AIDS prevention education. At first Mamadou is horrified by the wooden penis enclosed in the education kit as a demonstration aid for condom application, and he begs not to be forced to deal with it. Soon, though, Mamadou becomes an expert teacher and when he urges his friend to press on to a remote village, he explains, “Ah, Adama, it’s the penis. The wooden penis. Once, I feared it. Now it calls to me in my dreams and tells me to carry it everywhere.”
Adama takes this talking penis entirely in stride. By the end of the novel, he’ll be hiring a witch doctor to prosecute a feud with an old woman and, when the woman cuts her foot while chopping wood and later dies of an infection, he will consider himself to have killed her. It’s not that Adama ever believes he can become one of the villagers — even if he thought he could, they keep reminding him otherwise — but he is given a place among them. The witch doctor teaches him how to hunt wild chickens, and he earns a reputation for his prowess in this department. He plows and sows his own little plot of land in the forest with the other men. And, most of all, Adama gets embroiled in the neighborhood soap opera that unfolds raucously around him.
Adama’s love life, it must be said, is much like that of the average American male in his 20s: flailing, contradictory and unconsidered. He is teased mercilessly by the local flirt, launches a formal courtship of a regal herdsman’s daughter (only to chicken out after he wins her hand) and falls in love with two women — one married, the other a prostitute — neither of whom is foolish enough to take him too seriously. When a fellow aid worker, a young woman, comes to visit him, the village rejoices that at last Adama has been reunited with his “white wife,” and the two Americans decide to pretend it’s true, if only temporarily.
Mostly, though, what Adama does is soak up the rhythms and the culture of the place. Whether or not D’Souza has shared some of Adama’s experiences, the author has acquired the arts of a master storyteller, and each little tale nestled in this novel has an intoxicating, fireside charm. Some of the tales are sad, or spooky or bawdy, but all of them seamlessly combine the ancient allure of folklore with a modern, Western literary elegance. In a way, they’re like Adama, a hybrid in spite of himself, too African now to fit in back home, but still a “whiteman” and destined to leave. Existing in this in-between state is torture for Adama, but the novel Tony D’Souza has written about him handles it with incomparable grace.