In Whiteman, an engrossing first novel that reads an awful lot like a highly charged memoir, Tony D'Souza takes us into West Africa, a land where tragedy is as common as daybreak. The hero of this Chicago writer's debut is Jack Diaz, a relief worker in the Ivory Coast. Jack remains in his small, far-flung village even when funding for his agency is drastically cut. He spends his time hunting, planting and otherwise adopting the hardscrabble existence of his adopted tribe. He makes a close friend, dallies with various women white and black and does his futile best to avoid being drawn into the increasingly vicious and widespread war raging between Christians and Muslims. One day melts into the next as Jack butts against racial and cultural barriers that existed hundreds of years before his arrival. While he is accepted into the tribe, given hospitality, respect and even affection, the fact that one day he will leave while they remain looms between them.
D'Souza, who spent three years in West Africa as an AIDS educator with the Peace Corps, gives life to a country few westerners see beyond sound bytes and video clips in the news. The voices of the villagers resonate with simplicity, even as their thoughts, along with the world they live in, become increasingly complex.
Rather than a contiguous novel, Whiteman is more a linked chain of short stories. Each chapter is a different adventure in Jack's life, from falling in with the wrong woman to being taught to hunt by the village shaman. But each chapter contains thoughts and characters so vivid and well drawn that they are strong enough to stand alone. While a bit choppy and saddled with a final page that contains more than its share of bathos, D'Souza's novel is a compassionate and compelling look at a people and a way of life that you can't help feel are doomed. Ian Schwartz writes from New York City.