The ghosts of literary heavyweights are never far from the page in Philip Caputo's unflinching, dust-swept African odyssey, Acts of Faith. This cautionary tale about a modern-day group of well-intentioned pilots, missionaries and dreamers who attempt to alleviate the suffering in war-torn Sudan covers all the morally rocky ground we love in Melville and Conrad. Three very different love-in-the-trenches subplots recall the shell-shocked assignations of Hemingway. And the brutally honest, two-fisted prose reminds us yet again why Caputo, along with Jim Harrison and Peter Matthiessen, may be the last of the big cats in our literary jungle.
A decade after his 1965 tour of duty with the first Marine combat unit to fight in Vietnam, a shattered Caputo pieced his life back together by writing A Rumor of War, which became a definitive book of that divisive conflict. As a reporter and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, he covered the Kent State shootings and shared a 1972 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on election fraud. His fascination with Africa began in the mid-1970s with a trip by foot and camel across the deserts of Sudan and Eritrea that served as a backdrop for his first novel, Horn of Africa (1980).
Acts of Faith was inspired by Caputo's return to sub-Saharan Africa in 2000 and 2001 on assignment with National Geographic Adventure magazine. In the course of his reporting, he flew into Somalia with bush pilots whose cargo didn't strictly comply with the UN manifest.
"Everything is flown around in those places: dope, food, guns," he says by phone from his winter home in Patagonia, Arizona. "Some of the Russian Antonov pilots would fly UN food drops over Sudan, then on leave they would sometimes drop over to the other side and fly Antonov bombers for the Sudanese air force and drop bombs on the same people they were helping."Acts of Faith centers on Knight Air, an independent airlift operation that flies UN-sponsored relief missions from the Kenyan border town of Lokichokio into the Nuba Mountains, an oil-rich Sudan region at war with the Muslim-controlled government in Khartoum. Douglas Braithwaite, a dispassionate American, and Wesley Dare, a freewheeling good ol' Texan, run Knight Air with the help of Fitzhugh Martin, a biracial Kenyan soccer star, and Mary English, their young Canadian co-pilot. In the Nuba Mountains, Michael Goraende commands the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army while American missionary Quinette Hardin immerses herself in tribal customs in order to save souls. The Nuba badly needs the airlifts but not the air raids from Khartoum that its new airstrip might bring.
Romance develops between Wesley and Mary, Fitzhugh and Diana, and Michael and Quinette as Khartoum closes in on the humanitarian groups it suspects are smuggling arms to the rebels. Who will escape the approaching cataclysm, and how, occupies much of the third act. Like Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, everyone here is spiritually up a river without a paddle.
Caputo admits that the adventurous spirit that prevents him from plotting his novels beforehand sometimes prolongs the writing process as well. He was forced to scrap early work on Acts of Faith after trying in vain to ignite a love interest between Douglas and Quinette ("I wasn't very fond of him; he's just not a warm character.") Then there was the ending; both his wife and editor counseled him against his admittedly bleak finale. "I had originally had the book ending in an almost Shakespearean bloodbath," he chuckles. At 63, Caputo has reached an uneasy truce with danger. When Men's Journal approached him to take an embedded position with the 1st Marine Reconnaissance Battalion to cover the invasion of Iraq, he declined. Nor was he tempted to hunt Osama bin Laden in the Afghan mountains. "I said, I don't know that a 61-year-old guy should be running around with these 20-year-old recon guys," he recalls. "I had been in Afghanistan years ago with the mujahideen when they were fighting the Russians and I remembered how awful that country was. If it had kind of taxed me when I was 38, what's it going to do to me now?"Caputo instead threw himself into 13 Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings (Chamberlain Brothers) which elicited mixed feelings about the anti-war years.
"I had covered the Days of Rage the year before in Chicago, and I remember the protesters chanting. What do we want? Revolution! When do we want it? Now!' like a football cheer. And a year later, to be standing at that parking lot in Kent, Ohio, looking down on all of this blood that was still fresh and staining the asphalt, I thought, well, kids, this is what a revolution looks like."Surprisingly, the terrain that Caputo would most like to be able to tackle in fiction is everyday life.
"I read a lot of fiction that you would think somebody like me would not read, like Alice Munro and John Updike and John Cheever, and I've always felt this longing to be able to write about very ordinary situations in this wonderfully extraordinary way, but I can't do it [laughs]. I suppose it would be as if Alice Munro were to say, I think I'll write a war novel. Who knows, maybe it would be wonderful, but I doubt it." While his days on the front lines may be over, Caputo is reconciled to the fact that his work will always arise in some way from life on the edge. "There is something about out-of-the-way places and exotic locales and these kind of extreme, more difficult or dangerous situations that have kind of drawn me. I guess they reveal things about people that are not generally revealed in more ordinary circumstances. At my age, I've realized that that's my fate, my destiny so to speak, as a writer." Jay MacDonald writes for a living in the wilds of Mississippi.