Acts of Faith [NOOK Book]

Overview

Philip Caputo’s tragic and epically ambitious new novel is set in Sudan, where war is a permanent condition. Into this desolate theater come aid workers, missionaries, and mercenaries of conscience whose courage and idealism sometimes coexist with treacherous moral blindness. There’s the entrepreneurial American pilot who goes from flying food and medicine to smuggling arms, the Kenyan aid worker who can’t help seeing the tawdry underside of his enterprise, and the evangelical Christian who comes to Sudan to ...
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Acts of Faith

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Overview

Philip Caputo’s tragic and epically ambitious new novel is set in Sudan, where war is a permanent condition. Into this desolate theater come aid workers, missionaries, and mercenaries of conscience whose courage and idealism sometimes coexist with treacherous moral blindness. There’s the entrepreneurial American pilot who goes from flying food and medicine to smuggling arms, the Kenyan aid worker who can’t help seeing the tawdry underside of his enterprise, and the evangelical Christian who comes to Sudan to redeem slaves and falls in love with a charismatic rebel commander.

As their fates intersect and our understanding of their characters deepens, it becomes apparent that Acts of Faith is one of those rare novels that combine high moral seriousness with irresistible narrative wizardry.   


From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
Philip Caputo's devastating new novel, Acts of Faith, will be to the era of the Iraq war what Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American became to the Vietnam era: a parable about American excursions abroad and the dangers of missionary zeal, a Conradian tale about idealism run amok, capitalistic greed sold as paternalistic benevolence, ignorance disguised as compassion … Mr. Caputo writes with such authority that he's able to invest events that might seem improbable in another novelist's hands with an uncommon degree of verisimilitude, delineating not only the viewpoints of his Western visitors, but also those of the Sudanese rebels and their Islamic opponents with equally sure-handed drama and psychological ballast.
— The New York Times
Library Journal
An evangelical Christian, a woman with a colonial past, and a crusading, multiracial Kenyan all have their reasons for joining Douglas Braithwaite as he flies supplies to the war-ravaged Sudan. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Idealism and commitment take combative forms in Caputo's mordant morality tale, a story that strongly resembles his fine 1980 novel Horn of Africa. The setting is contemporary Africa's Sudan, where Arab Muslim forces based in Khartoum wage war against Sudani natives, particularly those of the oil rich Nuba Mountains. Aid to embattled Nubans and their scattered allies is the task that unites (and divides) the numerous characters here. Biracial Kenyan soccer star Fitzhugh Martin finds work with airlift relief operation Knight Air, whose pilots include emotionally clenched American Douglas Brathwaite (driven by a guilty family secret), roughhewn Texan Wes(ley) Dare and plucky young Canadian Mary English (who surprises Wes, and us, by falling for the aging reprobate). Other involved figures include British Africanophile philanthropist Diana Briggs; pilot Tara Whitcomb ("the modern-day Beryl Markham"), who flies for Knight Air's competition; Arab omda (warlord) Ibrahim Idirs, torn between making unwanted war and seeking his missing Nuban mistress; SPLA (Sudanese People's Liberation Army) officer Michael Goraende; and Iowan missionary Quinette Hardin, who gives herself to Africa with passionate headlong intensity, and thereafter dutifully embraces the consequences of her actions. Caputo's rich plot engulfs these, and many other ideologues, mercenaries and do-gooders, in several vividly detailed sequences: a dangerous mission to a makeshift mountain "hospital"; the reclamation of slaves from their greedy captors; the failure of Brathwaite's scheme to organize international aid by staging a celebratory "Nuban Day"; battles between Goraende's liberationist "army" and vastly superior Islamicinvaders; and the airplane "accidents" staged to cover Knight Air's real agenda, precipitating an explosive and bitter climax. It's overlong, and overattentive to its three romantic subplots. But Acts of Faith offers an image of Africa deserving comparison with Conrad, Hemingway, Peter Matthiessen, and Jan de Hartog's forgotten near-masterpiece The Spiral Road. First printing of 60,000
From the Publisher
“Devastating. . . . Acts of Faith will be to the era of the Iraq war what Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American became to the Vietnam era. . . . Powerful.” —The New York Times

Acts of Faith should be required reading. . . . Caputo’s best novel yet.” —The New York Times Book Review

"Philip Caputo's Sudan is a place drawn so real, dust and despair fall from the pages. . . . So beautiful, so awful, so authentic, so wonderful, so hopeless, it grieves the heart." —The Miami Herald

“Destined to be a generation-defining book.” — St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“A miracle. . . . You can hardly conceive of a more affecting reading experience.” —Houston Chronicle

"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." —Michael Ollove, The Baltimore Sun

“Philip Caputo, from Vietnam onwards, has understood the hardest truths of the modern world better than almost anybody. Acts of Faith is a stunningly unflinching novel. On the surface it is set in Africa, but in fact its true landscape is the ravaged soul of the twenty-first century. Philip Caputo is one of the few absolutely essential writers at work today.” —Robert Olen Butler

“In Acts of Faith Philip Caputo has fashioned a gripping cast of characters and placed them in a spellbinding story. You can’t get any better than that.” —Winston Groom

“Caputo’s ambitious adventure novel, set against a backdrop of the Sudanese wars, makes for a dense, riveting update on Graham Greene’s The Quiet American . . . Caputo presents a sharply observed, sweeping portrait, capturing the incestuous world of the aid groups, Sudan’s multiethnic mix, and the decayed milieu of Kenyan society.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Acts of Faith offers an image of Africa deserving comparison with Conrad, Hemingway, Peter Matthiessen, and Jan de Hartog’s forgotten near-masterpiece The Spiral Road.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Philip Caputo is a splendid, muscular story teller who possesses the crucial power to make endearing ordinary men from diverse fragilities and stubborness.” —Gloria Emerson, Los Angeles Times

“For the past twenty years, Caputo has written parables of hubris upbraided, populated by outsiders whose defects lead them into trouble as unerringly as does fate.” —David Haward Bain, New York Times Book Review

“Caputo lets no one and nothing off the hook.” —Richard Bausch, Washington Post Book World

“Caputo takes on most of the hot-button issues of our time–racism, random violence, disempowerment, the decay of social fabric, even the nature of evil itself–and more than lives to tell the tale.” —Roget L. Simon, Los Angeles Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400044917
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/3/2005
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 368,911
  • File size: 896 KB

Meet the Author

Philip Caputo worked for nine years for the Chicago Tribune and shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for his reporting on election fraud in Chicago. He is the author of six other works of fiction and two memoirs, including A Rumor of War, about his service in Vietnam. He divides his time between Connecticut and Arizona.


From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Read an Excerpt

Man of All Races

In his early twenties, after two undistinguished and troubled years at university, Fitzhugh Martin had achieved a modest celebrity as center forward for the Harambe Stars, which are to Kenyan soccer as the New York Yankees are to baseball. A sportswriter had nicknamed him “The Ambler,” because he never seemed to run very fast, his leisurely movements caused not by slow feet but by a quick tactical eye that allowed him to read the field in a glance and be where he needed to be with economy of motion.

He traveled with the club throughout Africa, to Europe, and once to the United States. He saw something of the world, and what he saw—namely the shocking contrast between the West and his continent—convinced him to do something more with himself than chase a checkered ball up and down a field. He’d heard a kind of missionary call, quit soccer, and became a United Nations relief worker, first in Somalia and then in Sudan.

That was the story he told, but it wasn’t entirely true: a serious knee injury that required two operations was as responsible for his leaving the sport as a Pauline epiphany. Or maybe the injury was the mother of the epiphany; sitting on the bench with his taped knee, he knew his career was as good as over and wondered what to do with the rest of his life. Of course, if he hadn’t had a social conscience to begin with, he would not have made the choice he did, and that conscience was formed by his ancestry. He had come to Kenya from the Seychelles Islands when he was eight years old, the eldest of three children born to a French, Irish, and Indian father and a mother who was black, Arab, and Chinese. The emigration took Fitzhugh from a place where tribalism was unknown and race counted for little to a land where tribe and race counted for everything. His family wasn’t poor—his father managed a coastal resort near Mombasa—but he came to identify with the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, because he grew up on the margins of Kenyan society, a boy without a tribal allegiance or a claim to any one race, for all the races of the earth were in him. He was the eternal outsider who was never allowed to forget that he was an alien, even at the height of his athletic fame. His skin was brown, yet the white Kenyans, children and grandchildren of colonial settlers, were more accepted than he, a tribe unto themselves.

After he worked for a year in Somalia, the UN promoted him to field monitor and assigned him to its operations in Sudan. Now a corporal in the army of international beneficence, he wandered in southern Sudan for weeks at a time, stalking the beast of hunger and devising strategies to hold the numbers of its victims to some acceptable minimum. That vast unhappy region captured him body and soul; it became the stage where Fitzhugh Martin played the role he believed destiny had assigned him. “The goddamned, bleeding, fucked-up Sudan,” he would say. “I don’t know what it is about that place. It sucks you in. You see some eighteen-year-old who’s been fighting since he was fourteen and can tell you war stories that will give you nightmares, but drop a piece of ice in his hands and he’s amazed. Never seen or felt ice before, never seen water turned to stone, and you get sucked in.” He meant to do all in his power to save the southern Sudanese from the curses of the apocalypse and a few the author of Revelation hadn’t thought of, like the tribalism that caused the southerners to inflict miseries on themselves. That was where his cosmopolitan blood became an advantage. He moved with ease among Dinka, Nuer, Didinga, Tuposa, Boya; the tribes trusted the tribeless man who had no ethnic axes to grind.

He loved being in the bush and hated returning to the UN base at Loki. It had the look of a military installation, ringed by coils of barbed wire. The field managers and flight coordinators and logistics officers—to his eyes a mob of ambitious bureaucrats or risk-lovers seeking respectable adventure—drove around like conquerors in white Land Rovers sprouting tall radio antennae; they lived and worked in tidy blue and white bungalows, drank their gins and cold beers at bars that looked like beach resort tiki bars, and ate imported meats washed down with imported wines. When Loki’s heat, dust, and isolation got to be too much, they went to Europe on R&R, or to rented villas in the cool highland suburbs of Nairobi, where they were waited on, driven, and guarded by servants whose grandparents probably had waited on, driven, and guarded the British sahibs and memsahibs of bygone days. They were the new colonials, and Fitzhugh grew to loathe them as much as he loathed the old-time imperialists who had pillaged Africa in the name of the white man’s burden and the mission civilisatrice.

When he wasn’t in Sudan, he who had grown up on the edge of things dwelled on the edge of the compound, in a mud-walled hut with a makuti roof and two windows lacking glass and screens; it wasn’t much better than the squalid twig-and-branch tukuls of the Turkana settlement that sprawled outside the wire, along the old Nairobi-Juba road. Inside were a hard bed under a mosquito net, a chair, and a desk knocked together out of scrap lumber. Fitzhugh’s only concession to modern comfort was electricity, supplied by a generator; his only bow to interior decoration, the posters of his heroes, Bob Marley, Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela. Asceticism did not come naturally to him. Self-denial is easy for people with attenuated desires and appetites; Fitzhugh’s were in proportion to his size. He could down a sixteen-ounce Tusker in two or three swallows and inhaled meals the way he did cigarettes. He loved women, and when he came out of the bush, he would sweep through the compound, scooping up Irish girls and American girls and Canadian girls. (He stayed away from the local females, fearing AIDS or the swifter retribution of a Turkana father’s rifle or spear.) Inevitably, he would feel guilty about indulging himself and go on a binge of monkish abstinence.

He met Douglas Braithwaite exactly two months and eighteen days after the UN fired him, an encounter whose date he would come to recall with as much bitterness as precision. Years later he tried to persuade himself that he and the American had come together for reasons he couldn’t fathom but hoped to discover, hidden somewhere in the machinery of destiny or in the designs of an inscrutable providence. Who among us, when an apparently chance meeting or some other random occurrence changes us profoundly, can swallow the idea that it was purely accidental?

Over and over Fitzhugh would trace the succession of seeming coincidences that caused the path of his life to converge with Douglas’s. He never would have laid eyes on the man if he hadn’t lost his job; he would not have lost it if . . . well, you get the idea. If he could map how it happened, he would find out why.

Eventually Fitzhugh’s mental wanderings led him back to the day he was born, but he was no closer to uncovering the secret design. So he was forced to abandon his quest for the why and settle for the how, a narrative whose beginning he fixed on the day a bonfire burned in the desert.

The High Commissioners of World Largesse, as he called his employers, occasionally overestimated the amount of food they would need to avert mass starvation in Sudan. Blind screw-ups were sometimes to blame; sometimes field monitors deliberately exaggerated the severity of conditions, figuring it was better to err on that side than on the other; and sometimes nature did not cooperate, failing to produce an expected catastrophe. Surpluses would then pile up in the great brown tents pitched alongside the Loki airstrip, tins of cooking oil and concentrated milk, sacks of flour, sorghum, and high-protein cereal stacked on pallets. Once in a while the stuff sat around beyond the expiration dates stamped on the containers. It then was burned. That was standard procedure, and it was followed rigorously, even if the oil had not gone rancid or the flour mealy or the grain rotten.

Mindful that cremating tons of food would make for bad press, the High Commissioners had the dirty work done under cover of darkness at a remote dump site, far out in the sere, scrub-covered plateaus beyond Loki. Truck convoys would leave the UN base before dawn with armed escorts, their loads covered by plastic tarps; for the Turkana, men as lean as the leaf-bladed spears they carried, knew scarcity in the best of times and were consequently skilled and enthusiastic bandits.

And it was the Turkana who blew the whistle. One morning a band of them looking for stray livestock in the Songot mountains, near the Ugandan border, spotted a convoy moving across the plain below and smoke and flames rising from a pit in the distance. The herdsmen went to have a look. That year had been a particularly hard one for the Turkana—sparse rains, the bones of goats and cows chalking the stricken land, shamans crying out to Akuj Apei to let the heavens open. The bush telegraph flashed the news of what the herdsmen had seen from settlement to settlement: The wazungu were burning food! More than all the Turkana put together had ever seen, much less eaten.

The word soon reached Malachy Delaney, a friend of Fitzhugh’s who had been a missionary among the Turkana for so long that they considered him a brother whose skin happened to be white. Apoloreng, they called him, Father of the Red Ox, because his hair had been red when he first came to them. He spoke their dialects as well as they and was always welcome at their rituals and ceremonies. In fact, he was sometimes asked to preside, and anyone who saw him, clapping his hands to tribal songs, leading chants of call and response, had to wonder who had converted whom. Malachy had been reprimanded by the archbishop in Nairobi and once by the Vatican itself for his unorthodox methods.

A frequent topic, when Malachy and Fitzhugh got together over whiskey in one of the expat bars, was Fitzhugh’s employer. Although Malachy was a man of the Left, he once told Fitzhugh that he admired the American senator Jesse Helms, probably the only man on earth who despised the United Nations as much as he. It had encamped in the heart of Turkana land to lavish aid on the Sudanese while doing nothing for his parishioners. Hadn’t helped them dig so much as a single well.

When he learned that the UN was destroying food that could have filled Turkana bellies, he lived up to his nickname. His hair was gray now, but his broad, blocky face, scholarly and pugnacious at the same time, was scarlet when he appeared at Fitzhugh’s tukul to vent his outrage. Destroying it! And it looks like they’ve been making a practice of it, did you know that? Fitzhugh answered that he’d heard as much, but of course he’d never seen it and couldn’t prove it. Proof, if it’s proof you’re needing, here it is, Malachy fumed, producing a charred can of powdered milk from his daypack. The herdsmen had scavenged it from the ashes, he added, and sat down under the eave, on one of the crates that served as Fitzhugh’s veranda furniture.

“More in there if you care to see it. It won’t surprise me if some of the lads ambush a convoy one of these days and take the bloody stuff for themselves, and if they kill somebody in the process, I’ll by God give them absolution in advance.” Malachy looked out across the asphalt meadow of the landing field, toward the huts beyond the barbed-wire fence, their domed roofs leakproofed with green, white, and blue sheets of plastic. “Ah, Fitz, I just might nick a rifle and lead them to it myself.” Malachy had a martial streak; Fitzhugh thought that a part of him regretted joining the priesthood instead of the IRA.

After he’d cooled off, he came up with a sounder plan. He had friends on the staff of the Nation, Nairobi’s most influential paper, and at the Kenya Television Network. If he got advance word about where and when the next burn was going to be, he would see to it that reporters and cameramen were there to record it. A few of his Turkana lads could show them where to hide—it would be a kind of bloodless ambush. The whole sorry scene would be captured on film, and then the UN scoundrels would be shamed into stopping their unconscionable practice. Accurate intelligence would, of course, be critical to success.

Fitzhugh gave him his full attention. He’d returned the week before from the Sudanese province of Bahr el Ghazal, where he’d been sent to conduct a “needs assessment” after Khartoum mounted an offensive against the SPLA. The rebel army didn’t suffer much, but the people did. Villages leveled by Antonov bombers, fields set afire, livestock slaughtered. They were mostly Dinka tribesmen out there, a very tall people with little flesh and fat to spare. Thousands filled the dusty roads: dead men, dead women, and dead children who did not realize they were dead and so struggled on through the heat, past the prostrate forms of those who had acknowledged their doom; struggled on seeking the brief clemency of an acacia’s shade, the small mercy of a cup of water, a handful of sorghum. Each one of those dark, lofty figures looked as insubstantial as a pillar of smoke. My goodness, he thought, listening to Malachy, a tenth of the surplus that had been put to the match could have saved them all.

To abbreviate, his espionage was successful. So was Malachy’s media ambush. The story made the front page and led the nightly news on KTN. Images of sacks, tins, boxes—forty tons of food!—consigned to the flames. The Father of the Red Ox went on the air to condemn the UN in the most florid terms, and to plead for the surpluses to be distributed among his beloved Turkana if they could not be used in Sudan. The foreign press was quick to pick up on the story. Detachments of journalists assaulted Loki. UN officials, feverishly trying to control the damage, issued denials and half-truths. Things were quite exciting for a while, but predictably the scandal died down, the journalists left, and nothing was done. The only actions the High Commissioners took were to bar Malachy from the UN compound and to launch a quiet internal investigation to find out who had tipped him off.

Fitzhugh’s friendship with Malachy was common knowledge. He soon found himself undergoing a cordial but persistent interrogation in the security office. He told a few lies, thought better of it, and confessed, showing no contrition whatever. His supervisor, a Canadian woman, told him he was through. Naturally he did not merely nod and leave. He made a speech, detailing the UN’s sins. She heard him out and, when he was done, told him that he possessed an “insufferably Hebraic soul,” a reference not to his religious affiliation but to his judgmentalism. He expected too much of people and human institutions, she said. Not everyone could be a saint; nor was relief work a religion.

Fitzhugh had been in the bush for so long that he’d forgotten the pleasant emotions the sea aroused in him. He had gotten used to living away from it but never stopped missing it. When he saw it again, from the balcony of his family’s flat on the coast, he felt as if he’d been reunited with a cherished friend. During his first week of unemployment he spent two or three hours a day staring at it, not a thought in his head. The cobalt vastness of the Indian Ocean, the advance and recession of the tides, the surf’s suck and draw, constant yet never monotonous, awakened vestigial memories of his island childhood. The salty winds cleared the oppressiveness that had been weighing on his soul. His work in Sudan had narrowed his vision and restricted his horizons; cut off from the rest of the world, caught up in the intense emotions fostered by bearing witness to war, starvation, and epidemics, he had almost lost the power to imagine places where people had futures that extended beyond the next day and had dreams of something more than finding a crust of bread. The sea’s breath, scented with the promise of new possibilities hidden beyond the seam of water and sky, assured him that such places still existed and encouraged him to believe that peace and plenty might one day come even to Sudan. At such moments the colors and dimensions of the sea, its sounds and smells, seemed to be those of hope itself.

He loved being back on the old Swahili coast, full of mongrels like himself, children of the sea’s human wrack. It was good to hear music and to wander Mombasa’s sultry and intricate streets; good not to listen for the drone of approaching Antonovs. Maybe it was too good. Fitzhugh’s tendency to swing between extremes kicked in. Having denied himself for so long, he now abandoned himself to the delights of Kenya’s answer to the Costa del Sol or Miami Beach. A few club owners remembered him from his star-athlete days and bought him rounds on the house. An old friend from high school, the son of a local political boss, knew a Nigerian who supplied him with prime-grade cocaine, and the two schoolmates would snort themselves into blabbering insomnia a couple of nights a week. Fitzhugh danced in the discos and slept with English and German and Scandinavian girls as if he’d spent the last six months on one of the trading dhows that sail the monsoons from Mombasa to India.

His conduct appalled his parents. Bad enough that he was thirty-three years old, out of work, and living under their roof. His father told him that he would roll up the welcome mat if he did not find something useful to do with himself, and quickly. Kenya is not an ideal country in which to find employment, so he thought Fitzhugh should go to work at his hotel, starting at the bottom, as a doorman. He was the proper size for that job. The doormen at the Safari Beach Lodge were costumed to look like something out of The Arabian Nights. Fitzhugh could not imagine himself got up like that, grinning at fat tourists, hailing taxis, hefting luggage for tips.

He was saved by something that approached divine intervention and inclined him to believe that his partnership with Douglas Braithwaite had been foreordained. Kenya’s phone service isn’t famous for its reliability, yet Malachy, calling from Nairobi one afternoon, got through on the first try. His ring came as Fitzhugh was leaving his parents’ flat to speak to his father at the hotel. Five seconds later, and he would have been gone.

Malachy had been summoned to the capital for what he called his semiannual dressing-down by the archbishop. During his visit (and here was another coincidence that didn’t seem coincidental to Fitzhugh in retrospect), he happened to bump into an old classmate from the seminary, John Barrett, who had told him about a job opportunity—

“I can’t get away from Irish priests!” Fitzhugh interrupted.

“This would be a former priest,” Malachy informed him. “A former Catholic priest. John was a missionary in Sudan for, oh, I would say fifteen years. It seems a Nuban woman persuaded him that celibacy was an unnatural state. He got some official or other to marry them. Pretty common arrangement in Africa, but the wrong people found out and John had to turn in his collar. So he switched. He’s now an ordained minister in the Episcopal Church of Sudan.”

“And what is the job opportunity? Altar boy? Do Episcopalians have altar boys?”

“John is at present unemployed as a minister,” Malachy replied. “He’s just been hired to direct relief operations in Sudan for a nongovernmental organization, International People’s Aid. He’s looking to hire someone with field experience, and I recommended you. Feel a bit responsible for your situation, don’t you know.”

Fitzhugh hesitated—he’d never heard of International People’s Aid.

“They’re fairly new on the scene, based in Canada, well funded I’m told, all nongovernmental sources. They are planning to take some bold steps. How soon can you get up here?”

Fitzhugh had read somewhere that the greatest happiness lies in living for others. The self and its appetites, the satisfaction of which only yields deeper hungers, are to the soul as mooring cables to an airship. To cut them willingly and without regret is to know true emancipation, the kind that cannot be granted by constitutions, proclamations, manifestos. Yes, he needed a job, but in speaking to Malachy, he realized that seeing hungry mouths fed and knowing that he’d done his bit to feed them had been more gratifying than anything else he’d done. Relief work was a religion, at least to his way of thinking. In a way it was an act of faith that infused his actions with spiritual value. He missed it and the freedom he found in it from the inner tyrant who kept demanding, I want, I want, I want.

He booked a seat on the next morning’s flight to Nairobi. One way.

The Reverend Father Malachy Delaney would have accused himself of speaking high treason if he ever uttered a civil, much less an admiring, word about English aristocracy. Inbred twits who could no longer manage even to be interestingly decadent, their antics fodder for Fleet Street tabloids, their sole achievement was the perpetuation of their titles and privileges decades after their class had outlived its relevance.

He made an exception of Lady Diana Briggs, partly because she was a Kenyan citizen, British by ancestry only, and partly because her title was conferred rather than hereditary, bestowed for her good works throughout Africa. An admirable woman, hardworking and selfless, was how Malachy described her as he and Fitzhugh drove from the airport to her house in Karen, the Nairobi suburb that remained a kind of game reserve for Caucasians. Lady Briggs had spent several years in refugee camps, laboring to repatriate displaced Africans, and when repatriation was out of the question, she helped them emigrate to whatever countries would take them in. She had sponsored scholarships for poor Kenyan children, served with the Red Cross in Rwanda, and had a genius for getting grant money. Now she was lending her expertise, her time, and some of her money to International People’s Aid.

Fitzhugh wasn’t sure how much time or expertise she had, but when he and Malachy got to her place, it was apparent that she didn’t lack for money. Two askaris opened a steel gate, admitting them to a world as remote from grimy, crumbling Nairobi as the land of her ladyship’s forebears. Acres of grass and garden, shaded by tamarind and eucalyptus; a rambling main house with white stucco walls, a clay-tile roof, and a veranda upon which wicker chairs practically begged you to sit down with a drink; a guest cottage; a carriage house with a Mercedes sedan and a Toyota Land Cruiser parked beside it; a small stable, an exercise ring. It was February, the beginning of the dry season, and the air at the foot of the Ngong hills was crisp and clear, scented by frangipani, hibiscus, mimosa. Fitzhugh recalled that perfume, and how it went immediately to his head, like good gin.

While a servant went to summon Diana, the two men waited in the foyer of the main house. Fitzhugh looked at Malachy and raised his eyebrows.

“Ah, now then, Fitz, I know your feelings about upper-crust do- gooders. Believe me, she’s different.”

“Different how?”

Malachy answered that her mind wasn’t the usual hatchery of idiotic schemes to uplift the dark-skinned downtrodden. Diana was practical, hard-headed. She knew what would work in Africa and what would not because she was as African as any Kikuyu, her family having been in Kenya for three generations.

Fitzhugh pointed at the sepia photographs on the foyer walls: brutal sahibs standing over lions they had shot, memsahibs wearing white muslin dresses and severe expressions—you could almost hear them ordering houseboys beaten for trying to clean tarnished silver plate by rubbing it with gravel.

“Atoning for her ancestors’ sins with all her charity work?”

“It isn’t charity,” replied Malachy. “And as for why she does what she does, well now, what difference does that make, so long as she does the right thing?”

“Apoloreng! You are late!”

Her tone was cheerfully scolding: a hostess greeting a habitually tardy but always welcome guest.

Malachy made a pretense of looking at his watch and pleaded heavy traffic. The bloody traffic in Nairobi got worse by the day.

“Everything in this country gets worse by the day,” she said, embraced him, and gave him each of her cheeks to kiss.

Malachy made the introductions. Diana Briggs took a half-step backward and extended her hand as she looked Fitzhugh up and down with the bluest eyes he had ever seen.

“I’d heard you were a footballer, and I must say, you look the part.”

Her smile fell on him like a gift, and her accent, thankfully, lacked the marbles-in-the-mouth mutter of the British upper classes. She spoke with the precision of a BBC news reader.

Fitzhugh was something of a sexist. To his mind, beauty forgave almost everything in a woman. Not that Diana Briggs was exceptionally beautiful; she only seemed so in comparison with the picture he had formed of a stout matron, Malachy having told him that she was in her early fifties. The body that suggested itself under a black cotton blouse and a pair of linen trousers, while it wasn’t slender, was a long way from matronly. If there was any gray in her blond hair, it had been artfully disguised. Only the cat’s whiskers at the corners of her eyes and the crescent furrows at the corners of her mouth betrayed her age, and you had to be within an arm’s length of her to see them; otherwise, you would have sworn she wasn’t beyond thirty-five. All this and the smashing smile made it impossible for Fitzhugh to dislike her, as he’d been prepared to do.

He couldn’t resist complimenting her looks. She responded with a toss of her head and a short, self-deprecatory laugh before telling the servant, in flawless Swahili, to bring in a fresh pot of tea.

They followed her through a hall decorated with ancestral memorabilia—crossed elephant tusks, the hide of a leopard that appeared to have been slain back in the days when Denys Finch-Hatton and Isak Dinesen were loving it up. Diana’s loose trousers flowed about her hips and legs as she walked, and the swirl of linen over flesh would have been erotic if it weren’t for her brisk, straight-backed stride, like a sergeant major’s on parade. They entered a study—a lot of old books, more old photographs and moth-eaten skins, a Masai buffalo-hide shield hanging over a fireplace, in front of which two men sat, backs to the door.

“John, Doug, the circle for our seance is now complete,” Diana said.

The pair stood. One was in his forties, going bald, and stood five-six at the tallest. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, and his complexion was the color of uncooked oats. This was John Barrett. When, with a kind of reflexive respect, Fitzhugh called him “Father Barrett,” he grinned tightly and reminded him, in a brogue less pronounced than Malachy’s, that he had lost claim to that title.

“It’s just plain John,” he said.

The other man was about Fitzhugh’s height, with thick hair hued like khaki, a slim frame, and a long, thin nose, slightly hooked, giving him the aspect of a handsome raptor. He might have been thirty, though he easily could have passed for an undergraduate. Straight away Fitzhugh knew he was an American. It wasn’t the cowboy boots and Levi’s that declared his nationality, nor the scrubbed, healthy complexion, as if he’d just stepped out of the shower after a game of pick-up basketball. It was the way he stood, chin cocked up, shoulders slouched just a little, projecting the relaxed belligerence of a citizen of the nation that ran the world. Fitzhugh imagined that a young Englishman would have struck a similar stance out in India a century ago, or a young Roman in the court of some vassal Gaul.

“Doug Braithwaite,” he drawled, shaking Malachy’s hand, then Fitzhugh’s, gripping his forearm with his other hand, as though they were old comrades, reunited.

“Fitzhugh Martin.” He flexed his arm after a moment to signal Braithwaite to let it go.

“Great to meet you. Been hearing a lot about you.”

If it’s possible for eyes to embrace another person, his embraced Fitzhugh. They had that effect on everyone, creating an instant intimacy. Clear and gray, giving off the appealing gleam of artificial pearls, they flattered you the moment they fell on you, the directness of their gaze making you feel that he was interested only in you.

“It’s all been good,” he went on. “We’ve got something in common. We’re both on the UN’s shit list.”

“Doug used to fly for the UN out of Loki,” Diana interjected.

“I prefer to say that I flew for an airline contracted to the UN. PanAfrik Airways. Copilot on Hercs mostly,” he added, turning again to Fitzhugh. “I’m surprised we never ran into each other. It’s a big operation out there, but not that big.”

“Evidently it’s big enough for us not to have run into each other. I was in the field most of the time.”

“Got the heave-ho a couple of weeks ago.” There was an undertone of pride rather than shame in the statement. “Ran afoul of regulations. You know what I mean, Fitz.”

Actually, he didn’t quite but was somehow embarrassed to say so. He asked whom Braithwaite was flying for now.

“Myself, if I can ever get my hands on an airplane,” he answered, with a smile that looked a little forced.

“So what regulations did you run afoul of?”

“It would be quicker to tell you which ones I didn’t, Fitz,” came the evasive answer. “Sorry. Is Fitz okay, or do you prefer Fitzhugh?”

The American had very nice manners. Fitz was fine. Braithwaite insisted that he call him Doug.

“Brilliant,” Diana said, displaying her brilliant teeth for emphasis. “Now that we’re all on a first-name basis, shall we get on with things?”

“Things” turned out to be a kind of job interview, with Diana and Barrett asking what exactly Fitzhugh had done for the UN for how long and why he’d left. Malachy had told them all about that, but now apparently they needed to hear it from Fitzhugh himself. Barrett looked elfin, but there was nothing elfin about his manner. Pitched forward in a green leather armchair—the kind you see in men’s clubs—he fired his questions like a prosecutor. There seemed to be an anger in him; he was a regular little kettle on perpetual boil, though the source of the flame wasn’t immediately clear. Whatever, the man’s intensity compensated for his size; it forced everyone to pay attention to him, and (Fitzhugh doing some psychologizing) maybe that was the reason for it.

The servant came in, quietly served tea, and stole out again. The nature of the questions changed. What did Fitzhugh think the southern Sudanese were fighting for? Independence? Autonomy? A unified Sudan under a secular government? No idea, he replied. He wasn’t sure if they knew any longer. Sometimes he had the impression that the rebels were fighting out of sheer habit. After all, they had been at it, off and on, for thirty years.

“Out of habit, you say?” Barrett leaned farther forward, so that his body was bent like a stubby hairpin. “Oh, I cannot agree with that, not at all. They’re fighting because those butchers in Khartoum don’t give them any choice. Fight or die—it’s that simple, and make no mistake about it.”

“I suppose that’s true.” Fitzhugh, feeling a bit like a pupil who has given the wrong answer, glanced sidelong at Malachy for help, but he gave none; nor did Douglas Braithwaite, sitting directly across, long legs outstretched while he chewed on the tips of his aviator’s sunglasses and looked as if he were weighing Fitzhugh’s every word.

“There’s no supposin’ either,” said Barrett. His pallid face glowed. “It’s jihad for the Arabs, and there’s no quarter given in a jihad. Allah gives his stamp of approval to mass murder.” Barrett sat back and took a sip of tea, the color fading from his cheeks. “This war isn’t like these other African dust-ups. It’s a continuation of the Crusades. The crescent versus the cross. Comes down to that, wouldn’t you say?”

The war was nowhere near as clear-cut as that, but a voice in the back of Fitzhugh’s head cautioned him not to voice such an observation. Gray did not appear to be Barrett’s favorite color.

“Pardon me,” he said, wondering if it had been a mistake to buy a one-way ticket. “I’ve come all the way from the coast, thinking you were going to talk to me about a job.”

“And that is what we are doing. Isn’t that what we are doing?”

Barrett glanced at Diana, sitting alongside him, her legs crossed, hands clasped over a knee, hair aglow in the dazzle slicing through the casement windows.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Acts of Faith opens with an interview with Fitzhugh Martin that takes place several years after the events recounted in the novel. How does this set the tone for the story that follows? What issues does it raise about the war in Sudan and the efforts, both military and humanitarian, to bring it to an end?

2. The meeting at Diana Briggs’s home [pp. 21–32] brings to light various reasons for helping the rebels in the south. How would you characterize the positions taken by Diana, John Barrett, Douglas Braithwaite, and Fitzhugh Martin? Which argument is objectively the most persuasive? Which one carries the most emotional impact?

3. Barrett declares, “Allah gives his stamp of approval to mass murder” and describes the war as “a continuation of the Crusades. The crescent versus the cross” [p. 25]. Is his opinion justifiable on the basis of recent historical events, or does it represent a narrow-minded Western view of Islam? Is it possible to separate religion and politics in Sudan and other places torn by conflicts among different ethnic or religious groups?

4. What first impression does Douglas Braithwaite make? What qualities does he project that lead Fitzhugh to say, “There was something about the American that made you not want to let him down” [p. 32]? Are any of Douglas’s less attractive qualities apparent at this first meeting?

5. Wesley Dare observes, “it was faith in some particular creed, sect, ideology, cause, or crusade” [p. 34] that spurred the violence he has witnessed over twenty-five years as a bush pilot. Fitzhugh talks about “the calm of an abiding conviction” of the evangelical missionaries and wishes he too had “some sort of inner resource that he could draw on” [p. 58]. How do their differing views of faith affect their feelings about Douglas and their willingness to follow his lead?

6. Do the “acts of faith” in the novel necessarily lead to negative consequences? Are there characters whose actions demonstrate that “abiding convictions” can motivate heroic behavior and express basic human decency in the face of the unspeakable?

7. What does the conversation between Tara and Douglas [pp. 70–72] reveal about the strengths and weaknesses of the American’s approach to crisis situations? What realities does Tara recognize that Douglas refuses to accept? Are there times as the story unfolds that Douglas’s direct manner and almost childlike candor bring to light moral imperatives that the other characters seem to ignore?

8. In contemplating the history of Sudan, Fitzhugh says, “What was it about this place that created visionaries of all kinds, warrior-prophets and warrior-saints, messiahs true and false? . . . Was Tara right in saying that Sudan’s distances conjure up mirages of the mind, its boundless horizons inspiring men to imagine that anything is possible? . . . And what is it about this place that even as it molds true believers out of its native clay, it also draws true believers from elsewhere?” [p. 104–105]. Is there a basic truth in this poetic, even spiritual, view of Sudan? How much of a country’s personality stems from its history and geography? Can an argument be made that nineteenth-century European imperialism in Africa was, at least in part, an expression of optimism and hope rather than simply a drive for economic and political dominance?

9. Several of the chapters focusing on Quinette are titled “Redeemer.” On one level this refers to her job of liberating slaves captured by Arab raiders. What else does it suggest about Quinette’s motivations for being in Sudan, about the character of her faith, and about her eventual willingness to cross the line between good works and illegal activities? What events bring to light the ambiguous nature of her devotion to the humanitarian and religious causes with which she is involved?

10. What role does Phyllis, the CNN reporter, play in the novel? Is she a foil for the others, especially Quinette? Does she represent the cynicism of the press? Or does she represent a viable ethical—or political—position in her own right?

11. Both Wesley [pp. 173 and 405, for example] and Fitzhugh [pp. 261 and 457] are well aware of Douglas’s faults, yet they choose to ignore them. Which man is clearer and more consistent about his reasons for staying with Knight Air? Does this give his arguments a greater moral weight?

12. Douglas and Quinette embody many of the characteristics thought of as typically American, from their enthusiastic, can-do style to their dangerous naïveté and self-righteous arrogance. How does Caputo keep them from becoming stereotypes? Do his descriptions of their backgrounds, for example, make them more sympathetic characters? What effect do the decisions they make at the end of the novel have on your feelings about each of them? Do they to some extent “redeem” themselves?

13. The chapters about Ibrahim Idris provide an unusual perspective on Islamic history and politics in Africa. What parallels are there between the aspirations of both sides in the conflict? Is Caputo evenhanded in describing the faults—as well as the ideals—of each side? Did these chapters change your understanding of the upheavals taking place in much of the Muslim world today?

14. There are three love affairs at the heart of Acts of Faith: the relationships between Quinette Hardin and Michael Goraende, Wesley Dare and Mary English, and Fitzhugh Martin and Diana Briggs. How does each relationship represent an act of faith? Which of these unlikely alliances is the most credible? Are any of the characters completely honest with themselves—and with their lovers—about the reasons for their romantic attachments? What ulterior, perhaps even unconscious, motives might you ascribe to each of them?

15. Michiko Kakutani calls Acts of Faith “a parable about American excursions abroad and the dangers of missionary zeal, a Conradian tale about idealism run amok, greed sold as paternalistic benevolence, ignorance described as compassion” (The New York Times, May 3, 2005). How accurately does the book portray the failure of humanitarian efforts around the world, both by the UN and by private agencies? Does it present a convincing portrait of the way America is perceived today?

16. Philip Caputo’s best-known book, A Rumor of War, is a memoir of his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam and a meditation on what war does to ordinary soldiers. To what extent can Acts of Faith be seen as a return to—or a continuation of—the questions explored in that book? Why has Caputo, a journalist who covered the wars in Sudan, chosen to write a novel rather than a nonfiction account of what he saw?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 4, 2009

    A Disappointment

    I grabbed this book off the shelf when I saw under Caputo's name on the cover page, "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize". This is usually a pretty good indicator that the book will be a good read. On the way to the checkstand I began to get the idea that this PP was not for outstanding literary ability as a novelist, but rather as a political reporter.

    Acts of Faith - is just that. An attempt to write a novel by a political reporter. Little or no real literary talent in evidence here. All conversations in the book are stilted and awkward.

    There are some good passages in the book where interior and exterior landsacapes are described.

    Mr. Caputo should stick to what he is good at - newspaper reporting.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2005

    A masterpiece

    Though a tad long, this book should be a classic. Somehow one can feel the heat, the mosquitos bites, but we can also sense the majesty of Africa - God's creation. Should be required reading for anyone interested in the plight of the African people.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    excellent thriller

    In the oil rich Nuba Mountains of Sudan, Muslims wage war on the natives. A variety of individuals with differing purposes try to provide sustenance to the beleaguered populace. One relief group Knight Air includes Biracial Kenyan Fitzhugh Martin who fills his previously vapid life as a soccer star with meaning due to the relief operation. Americans Douglas Brathwaite and Wes Dare, and Canadian Mary English also find spiritual sustenance with the fly lift effort.--- At the same time as Knight Air and other rival relief groups struggle to assist the blacks, the ferocious slaughter continues as Arab warlord Ibrahim Idirs keeps fighting though he misses his black mistress who is probably dead. . The Sudanese People's Liberation Army has its agenda too and so does the altruistic Knight Air who chooses an immoral means that will geometrically increase the death rate in order to end the killings.--- Using detailed events to describe a devastating war, Philip Caputo provides a deep look at what Colin Powell declared as genocide. The story line uses action to paint a complex multifaceted look into the killing fields of Sudan and how mercenaries, missionaries, military and mindless humanitarians cause havoc on the beleaguered local populace. Though depressingly a Rwanda replay, ACTS OF FAITH is a thought provoking anti-war thriller that even uses seemingly out of place romantic subplots to serve as ironic counterpoint to the killings in which all is not quiet on the southern front.--- Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 17, 2010

    Docudrama Style on Important Topic

    While the author gives a fictionalized account of an important geopolitical conflict, the characters offer insight into the problems of outsider intervention. The corruption of local regimes and outsiders alike are given attention and analysis. The self delusion of missionaries, gun runners, and slave emancipators is instructive and insightful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2006

    Fabulous

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book....devastatingly beautiful...

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2006

    Read Conrad

    I was extremely disappointed with this book especially after reading its reviews. This book is too lengthy for its plot, and sleazy scenes intersperse the substance of this book. It is a Conradian tale, and it reaches the same conclusion as Heart of Darkness--'The Horror, The Horror.' Caputo states this conclusion more blatantly enumerating how Africa is the fertile ground in which the innate human evilness can flourish. This alone was disappointing because it was highly unoriginal. In addition, Caputo offers nothing additional which can counter Chinua Achebe's claim that Conrad is a 'bloody racist' due to his conclusion and portrayal of Africa and Africans. Though I do not completely agree with Achebe, I think that Caputo's book would have been greatly strengthened if he did not emphasize the corruption and injustice that facilitates 'African justice.'

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2008

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2011

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