'Acts of Faith' blurs distinctions in characters, continent


Acts of Faith

By Philip Caputo. Alfred A. Knopf.

669 pages. $26.95.

In the prologue to Philip Caputo's sprawling, harrowing novel, Acts of Faith, one of the characters, speaking to a newcomer to the continent, refers cryptically to "the synonymousness of God and the Devil in Africa."

Distinctions, like idealism, disappear in Caputo's own misery-strewn Heart of Darkness. Characters who begin as one sort of person morph into something else entirely, rationalizing transformations they would once have considered appalling. But have they really changed or, as Caputo suggests, merely revealed what was there all along, exposed by the exigencies of Africa? "To outward appearances, each of us is a half truth," one of his characters reflects, wised up by the toll of violence that has occurred. "The self we present to the world conceals a clandestine self that awaits its time to come out."

The greatest blur of all is Africa itself, a continent that does not so much punish every good deed as pervert it. Vast, violent, and unforgiving, Caputo's Africa is the ultimate "Land of Unintended Consequences," the place where "no matter what you did in the name of right, wrong inevitably resulted." In Caputo's terrain, faith does not imply beneficence but blindness, most particularly to one's own nature.

A parade of richly conceived figures arrives in Kenya, intent on doing right (some at a profit), for the tribes across the border in southern Sudan. The tribes are united (or mainly so) in a merciless struggle against Islamic militant forces from the north, who are resolved to contain rebel insurgents, and, as a bonus, annihilate the black infidels.

Douglas Braithwaite is a charismatic American of murky background who creates Knight Air Services to fly food and medical supplies to the besieged populations of southern Sudan. Quinette Hardin, a young American missionary from Iowa initially involved in the effort to buy back Sudanese slaves from their Islamic captors; Wesley Dare, a cynical, aging hotshot pilot who signs on to deliver Braithwaite's goods; and Fitzhugh Martin, the conscience of the novel, Braithwaite's junior partner, a mixed-race Kenyan and disillusioned former United Nations relief worker who's ambivalent about his allegiances.

The latter three all are touched by passionate, unforeseen romances: Quinette with the military leader of rebel troops in the Nuba Mountains, Wesley with a fiery co-pilot a fraction of his age, and Fitz with an older, aristocratic Kenyan philanthropist. There are life-altering consequences for all three, leading them to choices they never expected of themselves.

But the most fascinating journey concerns Braithwaite, the most enigmatic of them all, as he moves from humanitarian to arms smuggler to ruthless capitalist, confirming along the way Fitz's suspicions of him as a man with "something missing in him."

Caputo, a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter turned novelist, writes with astonishing authority, launching several complex plot lines and an enormous, vibrant cast of characters -- aid workers, soldiers, militants, mercenaries, missionaries and corrupt officials. The plot threads join in a propulsive, satisfying finish, inevitably inching demon and deity ever closer together.

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