Picks and Pans Review: White Man's Grave

updated 08/15/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/15/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Richard Dooling

Western due process meets cryptic African ritual in the maze of Richard Dooling's ribald second novel. Grave begins when a mysterious parcel containing a bundle of rags that looks "like a dark, petrified egg, laid by some huge, extinct bird of prey" arrives at the law office of Randall Killigan. Then comes news that Randall's son Michael, a peace corps volunteer in Africa, has been missing for the past two weeks. Michael's disappearance is compounded by the fact that his village is located in Sierra Leone, which is being besieged by Liberian guerrillas. A well-connected lawyer who can troubleshoot the circuit courts of Indiana and call in favors from powerful senators, Randall can do nothing to remedy his son's fate.

Michael's childhood friend Boone Westfall has already traveled to Paris, where the two had planned to meet and then travel onward throughout Europe. The moment Boone gets word that his friend is missing, he squanders his hard-earned savings on an expensive plane ticket to Sierra Leone, entering a labyrinth of witchcraft and black magic. Life in the bush is so hostile that the first Westerner he meets describes it as a "white man's grave." Dooling's novel becomes a satire of American and African culture, of wheeling-and-dealing lawyers manipulating the legal system to work to their advantage and of shamans and soothsayers trying to harness the forces of their world. It's an admirable addition to the canon of belly-laugh-culture-clash literature. (Farrar Strauss Giroux, $22)

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