White Man's Grave Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Despite the accomplishments of Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri, and other distinguished African writers, postcolonial Africa remains for most Western readers pretty much what it was in the nineteenth century, the “dark continent” of mystery then, of famine, tribal massacres, civil wars, and AIDS now. That its best-known literary figures— J. M. Coetzee and Nadine Cordimer—are white South Africans says a good deal about the difficulties facing both black writers trying to gain the attention of Western readers and non-African readers trying to find a work that can be said to represent this vast and geographically, politically, and culturally varied land. In retrospect, novels such as Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King (1959) and John Updike’s The Coup (1978) appear remarkably naïve and condescending, or worse when read in light of Bellow’s remark to the effect that when the Zulus have their Tolstoy, “we” will read him.

Whatever it is that “Africa” continues to represent in the Western imagination is exemplified in works such as Peter Matthiessen’s seductively titled African Silences (1991); the Summer, 1994, issue of Granta magazine devoted to “Africa”; and Into Africa (1994), Craig Packer’s scholarly study of the animal life in East Africa. Even as it echoes Isak Dinesen’s autobiographical volumeOut of Africa (1937), Packer’s title makes the usual synecdochic mistake of taking the part for an African whole. “In spite of myself,” writes Packer, “my heart is racing toward Africa.”

Heart of Darkness (1902) is of course the ur-text here, its canonical definitiveness underwritten by both the colonialism that Joseph Conrad appeared to be critiquing and the racism upon which that colonialism was founded. Ever since Achebe first leveled the racism charge against Conrad, it has been impossible to read Heart of Darkness either as an unambiguous cultural critique or in terms of the eternal verities, and it has been necessary to situate this novel and works like it in relation to some still hypo- thetical study that would do for Africa what Edward Said has done for the “Orient.” In Orientalism (1978), Said demonstrated that the ways in which the West came to study, represent, and thereby know and control the East contributed at least as much to furthering the colonial enterprise as they did to extending nineteenth century Europe’s store of “scientific” knowledge.

Fortunately, a few Western novelists have managed to approach Africa in much the same “postcolonial” manner that J. G. Farrell did India in his Booker Prize-winning novel The Siege of Krishnapur (1973). Two of the best of them, surprisingly enough, have been written by Americans. Norman Rush’s Mating, winner of the 1991 National Book Award, is a cerebral comedy set in Botswana, where Rush served in the Peace Corps from 1973 to 1983. Richard Dooling’s White Man’s Grave, a National Book Award nominee, is set in Sierra Leone and concerns the disappearance of a Peace Corps volunteer.

White Man’s Grave is a satire of the witty rather than withering variety; it is also, in the author’s phrase, a “supernatural thriller.” Like most satires and thrillers, super- natural or not, it is long on characters but short on the characterization that would only weigh down the author’s wildly inventive comic style and international plot. Dooling’s broad-strokes approach to character is especially noticeable, and especially effective, in his handling of minor figures, such as lawyers with comic-book names such as Spontoon, Saplinger, Carbuncle, Bilksteen, and Lance Buboe. Here and in his treatment of Peace Corps workers and other foreigners in Africa, the effect runs to caricature and grotesquerie rather than reductiveness. Even as he follows Flannery O’Connor’s lead and writes large for the near blind, Dooling incorporates a wealth of detail about the practice of law and medicine in the United States and the history, languages, and cultures of Sierra Leone. Here he draws on his work as a lawyer and earlier as a respiratory technician and therapist (his 1992 first novel, Critical Care, is set in an intensive-care ward), and the seven months he spent in Sierra Leone in the early 1980’s. The result is a novel that, for all its humor, rings true, one that manages to be as informative as it is amusing. The facts are never intrusive, always integral parts of Dooling’s comic design: the catalogs of fevers and diseases; the kick to be gotten from eating a kola nut; the published remarks of English colonials, certain of their superiority, about the country they dubbed “the White Man’s Grave”; the differing but ultimately not so different medical practices in Sierra Leone and in Indianapolis: the ndelei and bofime, cannibalism and secret societies of the one, the no less arcane acronymic MRI’s, CAT scans, X-rays, and AMA’s of the other.

It is news of the disappearance of Michael Killigan, a Peace Corps volunteer, under suitably mysterious circumstances that sets Dooling’s parallel plots in motion. One involves Michael’s friend, the...

(The entire section is 2137 words.)