Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Acts of Faith
by Philip Caputo
Knopf, 688 pages, $26.95

Philip Caputo’s Acts of Faith is a big, serious, ambitious work. It has been admirably researched and is quite decently written, to boot. So why does it fall short of provoking any real enthusiasm? Quite possibly because”on reaching the end of this intricately plotted novel”you realize that it is no coincidence two of the key players are American. Their nationality is essential for the author to make a very specific, and very tired, political point.

This realization becomes utterly clear in the last quarter of the novel, where the action really picks up. Caputo settled on the nationality of his characters, the aviator and entrepreneur Douglas Braithwaite and the evangelical Christian Quinette Hardin, because he thinks they represent damning flaws in the American national character today.

Initially, such American flaws appear almost as positive virtues: energy, determination, a desire to do good. Only gradually”in fact, so gradually as to slow the impact of the novel”do these failings stand revealed as an explanation in Caputo’s mind as to why the United States plays such a damaging role on the world stage.

Now that I think about it, Caputo clues the reader in at the onset with his three epigraphs. The first, from Ecclesiastes, declares, “All things have I seen in the days of my vanity, . . . for God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” The second is from Joseph Conrad’s novel Nostromo : “It seemed to him that every conviction, as soon as it became effective, turned into that form of dementia the gods send upon those they wish to destroy.” And the third, from Blaise Pascal: “Whoever tries to turn angel turns beast.” (Not perhaps the most felicitous translation of that well-known seventeenth-century dictum.)

Caputo locates his story in Africa”an Africa he defines in his very first sentence: “there is no difference between God and the Devil in Africa. Whoever understands that in his blood and bones and guts, where true understanding resides, will swim in its treacherous currents, whoever doesn’t will drown.” The action is situated principally in Kenya and the Sudan, a territory Caputo got to know thirty years ago having crossed the deserts of Sudan and Eritrea on foot and camelback on the trip that inspired his first novel, Horn of Africa . This most recent work however is centered around the civil war raging in Sudan where Muslim warriors swoop down on villages of people, either Christian or followers of ancient rites, to murder and capture slaves. Famine, drought, and abject misery are rampant. To his credit Caputo makes this alien world come very much alive.

The plot involves a Christian aid organization that pays dollars to liberate the black slaves taken in these raids by the northern Sudanese Arabs led by a warlord named Ibraham Idris, who is acting in concert with the government in Khartoum. Ironically the American dollars only incite the murahaleen to increase their raids, while an Arab middleman works a scheme to increase the number of dollars he can negotiate. Neither the men of God nor the soldiers of Allah come off too well.

Braithwaite, with his own small aviation company, flies food and medicaments into rebel-controlled areas of southern Sudan declared “no-go zones” by the authorities of Khartoum (meaning off-limits to the UN and any help from that organization). It isn’t too long before Braithwaite, recognizing economic advantages for himself, starts flying in arms for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, disguising the shipments of grenade launchers as food and medical necessities.

In little time, a devout young Christian, Quinette Hardin, straight from the cornfields of Iowa, becomes convinced Jesus is directing her to stay in the war zone and dedicate herself not only to helping these suffering people materially but to saving their souls as well. Convinced of her holy calling, she gives herself to Africa body and soul. Actually her body she gives to the six foot seven inch Nubian lieutenant colonel of the SPLA, Michael Archangelo Goraende, going to the extent of having her own body incised and scarred according to Nubian traditional ceremonies.

Quinette is perhaps the most interesting character. We see her develop from a fairly uncomplicated innocent do-gooder into a woman who discovers unexpected strength in herself. By marrying her lieutenant colonel and electing to live out her life in Africa, she recognizes the destiny she has chosen and what it ultimately means. Quinette is a bit of a fool perhaps, but a brave if misguided woman. Braithwaite, meanwhile, as an updated ugly American, is not a particularly interesting creation, although his presence is essential to the plot.

To Caputo’s credit, it must be said that in the last quarter of the novel the various elements of the plot”moral and political”all slide and lock together quite perfectly. It’s only a pity he had to take so long to get there. Substantially shortened, Acts of Faith could have been an impressive piece of work. To make this world come even more alive, readers might consider seeking out the quite splendid book of photographs of Nubians taken by the infamous Leni Riefenstahl a few years ago to see that Caputo is no way exaggerating in his many descriptions of these people as being so startlingly beautiful.

Cynthia Grenier is a writer living in Washington, D.C.