(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Sheltering Sky, arguably Bowles’s best work, has as its setting his terrible yet hauntingly lovely depiction of the Sahara Desert. The chief protagonist could be said to be like the desert itself: an aloof, indomitable, compelling, disorienting, killer landscape—a killer waiting for new victims. All is mystery, despite the clarifying sunlight. A kind of anarchy reigns in the chaotic towns on the desert’s periphery, and the farther one travels from coastal cities, the more anarchic and mysterious things become for Bowles’s dissolute, bored characters.

Into this strange part of the world Bowles introduces his Americans, Port and Katherine (Kit) Moresby, a young husband and wife from New York, wandering aimlessly, supported by considerable funds. Port, whom Kit likes to insist is a writer, actually is no such thing: He really does nothing with his life.

Cynical and jaundiced by fruitless years spent in the United States, Port begins his African sojourn at the Café d’Eckmühl-Noiseux in a town somewhere close to the coast of Morocco.

Kit, his intelligent, attractive wife, is not quite as dissatisfied with life as is he, for she has lingering expectations of some kind of life illumination to come from this exile of theirs. She is alert to the people she encounters; her lively interest in her surroundings counters her husband’s boredom, yet she also struggles to find meaning in her life and sometimes falls into a bored silence.

A fellow American simply called Tunner meets the Moresbys, then attempts to befriend them. He turns traitor to his new “friend,” Port, when he seduces Kit on a train ride to the interior. Like Port and Kit, Tunner is a drifter drawn to North Africa by restless yearnings not quite identifiable. Also entering the picture are the Lyles, a bizarre couple supposedly composed of a mother and her spineless son who, it is found out, sleep together (whether they are incestuous is not stated). The boy, Eric, is a liar, a cheat, and a thief, and his mother is a loud-mouthed, obscene, overly aggressive woman, proud of herself to the...

(The entire section is 865 words.)