White Man's Grave

by Richard Dooling

“What ees thees foh?” asked one of the grandsons, fingering a used pipe cleaner that was well gaumed with resin and carbon.

“It is for cleaning the pipe,” Boone said, making pipe-reaming motions.

Dowda examined the pipe cleaner intently. “I see,” he said. “And then how do you clean this” -- holding the pipe cleaner up -- “after it has cleaned the pipe?” he asked, rolling the pipe cleaner between his fingers and the ball of his thumb, showing Boone how the tar and resin made his fingers stick together.

Boone smiled indulgently and explained that pipe cleaners were meant to be used only once and then discarded.

After this was translated, the grandson and Pa Ansumana both huddled over the pipe cleaner, studying it even harder, and occasionally wiping their fingers on his sleeping bag. They spoke Mende together on the matter, the young miner going through the motions of reaming out the pipe and holding it in the direction of the fire. Finally Pa Ansumana seemed to grasp the idea of a pipe cleaner that was to be used once and discarded. A smile glimmered in his eyes, a kind of delight in the absurdity, the extravagant pointlessness of having such a well-constructed wire tool meticulously fitted out with absorbent fibers and plastic bristles, all created by a machine several oceans away for the fleeting, profligate purpose of cleaning one pipe, one time, and then thrown away.

“African bathed in the streams and rivers, where they picked up schistosomiasis.... where it takes up residence with colonies of hookworms, whipworms, giant intestinal roundworms, tapeworms, threadworms, amoebas, flukes, trichina, spirochetes, plasmodia, mycobacteria, and a host of other parasites which inhabit humans living in warm moist climates, turning them into savage planets teeming with colonies of organisms.... In America, humans usually are not food for worms until they dies; in Africa, the worms move in early and stake their claims in advance of the big day.”

This is the story of the search for a missing Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone by his best friend and his father. A sharp satirical tone is the driving element of this novel, and no one is spared. Dooling takes swipes at both American and African cultures as, to quote the New Yorker review, “First and Third Worlds collide in this dark comedy”.

This book has been quite well recieved critically. It was a National Book Award Finalist, was described as “impressive” by the New York Times Book Review, “satiric and sometimes rollickly funny” by the Washington Post, and so on. And there is some very clever writing here, as I think is demonstrated by the quotes I extract from it for my September Quote of the Month, and September Outrageous Quote of the Month.

Nevertheless, I wasn't all that crazy about this book. The characters are uniformly unsympathetic, the satire too broadly painted, and the conclusion too predictable. Still, it's a pretty good read, and does contain some good passages. I give it **½ (out of ****). By the way, the entire First Chapter of the White Man's Grave is online. You can read a thoughtful on-line review by an ex-PCV in the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual RPCV newsletter.

This book may well be available at your local library; or you can order it from Amazon Books Online. The paperback edition lists at $13.00.

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