In an unusual move, Auburn author William McCauley opens his powerful new book of stories — all set in Sierra Leone — with a five-page introduction...
In an unusual move, Auburn author William McCauley opens his powerful new book of stories, “Need” (Permanent Press, 157 pp., $24) — all set in Sierra Leone — with a five-page introduction. In it, he explains that he spent time in the West African country in the 1980s while working with a German-backed fisheries development program, and says that by 1987, when his contract expired, it was easy enough to see the long civil war of the 1990s coming.
Actually, he contends, “civil war” isn’t the appropriate term “because it dignifies what was simply warlordism run amok. It was a time of organized banditry, of mass murder and intimidation through mutilation.”
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William McCauley will read from “Need,” 3 p.m. Sunday, Queen Anne Books, 1811 Queen Anne Ave. N., Seattle (206-283-5624 or www.queenannebooks.com); 7 p.m. Tuesday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com); 7 p.m. next Friday, Barnes & Noble, 626 106th Ave. N.E., Bellevue (425-451-8463); 7 p.m. March 23, Barnes & Noble, 18025 Garden Way N.E., Woodinville (425-398-1990); 7 p.m. March 24, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).
If many Sierra Leoneans behaved atrociously, so did some Westerners: “To get their jobs done, and to remove personal impediments, expats routinely bribed local officials, which, over the years, eroded confidence in government and undermined legitimate authority. Expats also abused their growing personal power, a situation that always accompanies possession of great wealth in a poor country.”
McCauley notes that by 1987 he was earning 100 times what his professional Sierra Leonean colleagues were making — his wages coming from Germany, while theirs were paid in the currency of an economy in collapse.
An ugly reality with a bleak future — that seems to be McCauley’s factual take on the place.
So what are the stories like?
Tough, terse, doleful — yet oddly loving, affectingly generous and rarely predictable in where their sympathy falls.
Sierra Leone clearly got into McCauley’s blood and won’t let him go. As he writes of one of his protagonists: “He longed to remain part of this Africa of mosquito-infested, mangrove-strangled islands and stunted tribesmen whom even the slavers of two hundred years before had regarded as worthless, and who were as organically connected to the islands as the black mud and the miles of mangrove thickets and the warm sea — hanging on and dying while they struggled to live long enough to procreate. He had not imagined a life of such richness before he came to Africa.”
McCauley’s ploy in almost every tale is to take some small incident — the attempted theft of a garden hose, the gift of a book, the purchase of some “jamba” (marijuana) — as the starting point for a drama that then escalates until it cuts right through Sierra Leonean and expat realities.
In the fine title story, Moody, an American agricultural-development lecturer based in the country’s capital, Freetown, is approached by a well-spoken Sierra Leonean neighbor for “a small amount of petrol” impossible to obtain at any filling station (“the government cannot pay the tanker”). Allieu Sesay is a hotel night manager, his car has been “on queue” for fuel for days, and now he wants only to drive it back to the relative safety of his hotel.
Moody reluctantly obliges him. Some strained social visits ensue — visits made all the more tense by Moody’s realization of his own unabashed “need” for Sesay’s English wife. Perhaps some arrangement can be worked out …
In other stories, the American characters smoke the local jamba, sleep with the local women and speak the local “Krio” (a pidgin English deftly rendered by McCauley). Their attitudes range from high-handedly disengaged to attentively patronizing, from casually buddy-buddy to unconsciously racist.
As the country’s economy unravels and times get more desperate, some stories take bloodier turns.
Others have an edgy comic verve — for instance “Palaver,” about that garden hose, where the confrontation gets more and more out of hand until the officer taking statements on the case comments: “All this hala-hala ovah a gahden hose? Which was not even tiefed?”
McCauley’s crisp, no-nonsense prose places each scene clearly before its reader’s eyes, with sounds, smells and sensations (fever, heat rash, gastrointestinal martyrdom) sharply rendered, too. In many tales, he slips the reader without explanation directly into the center of a conflict — or, if not the center, then a good vantage point — and lets the relationships between characters emerge in their own good time.
The result is shrewd, pointed fiction that hits its mark.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com