Emmanuel Dongala charmed and captivated U.S. readers in 2001 with his near-breakout novel "Little Boys Come from the Stars." His latest effort...

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“Johnny Mad Dog”
by Emmanuel Dongala, translated by Maria Louise Ascher
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
321 pp., $26

Emmanuel Dongala charmed and captivated U.S. readers in 2001 with his near-breakout novel “Little Boys Come from the Stars.”

His latest effort, “Johnny Mad Dog,” is a more visceral and jarring journey. Set against the chaos of civil war in an unnamed West African country, the book apparently is inspired by events in Dongala’s native Congo Republic, which the author fled amid unrest in 1997.

Johnny Mad Dog is arresting, absorbing and, at its core, affirming to the human spirit. The question is, will American readers have the stomach for it?

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The book, translated from the French by Maria Louise Ascher, is narrated by two 16-year-olds with dramatically different perspectives of the conflict: Johnny, the petulant leader of one of the ragtag militias terrorizing the country; and Laokolé, a brave, quick-thinking refugee desperately trying to protect herself, her younger brother and her maimed mother.

Tapping into the teenage mind, Dongala delivers cross-cultural insights any parent can relate to. Johnny is a self-described “intellectual” (he made it through the second grade, further than most of his comrades) whose naiveté and insecurities would be endearing if he weren’t acting them out by brutalizing whoever defies him.

Laokolé, on the other hand, is headstrong in all the right ways, guiding her family through the bedlam while also defending helpless strangers. An aspiring engineer who dreams of building skyscrapers, she is an impressive heroine — Johnny may get marquee billing in the title, but this is Laokolé’s book.

Dongala makes no effort to sanitize the depravity of war, repeatedly constructing intense scenes filled with violence, rape and murder. But the author also has a tender writer’s touch, rendering gorgeous descriptions of forests and butterflies and peppering the story with occasional comic relief.

A chemist and novelist who now teaches at Simon’s Rock College of Bard in western Massachusetts, Dongala has a distinct narrative style. He often allows the same scenes to unfold from each protagonist’s perspective, much like the movie “Pulp Fiction.” Some readers may find this technique refreshing; others will find it redundant.

Ultimately, the book is a tale of survival that, despite all the brutality, manages to uplift. As Laokolé puts it:

“How was it that despite the cruelty humans were capable of, there were still people who sacrificed themselves for others? … Given all the evil that human beings strive so hard to perpetrate, the good ought to have been driven out of existence. Yet it exists. Why? Who knows!”