John A. Williams is a prolific American writer who has propelled his way through 16 books, fiction and non-fiction, with two overriding gifts: his anger at the inanity of this country's white-run society and his essential humor and wit in describing the world from a black point of view. Now, in this new novel, "Jacob's Ladder," he seeks to reach back 20 years into his own past as a black American visitor to newly independent Africa and apply those gifts to explaining the difficulties young African countries have had in finding their way through the mine field of East-West tensions.
Jake Henry is a major in the U.S. Army on assignment as military attache--and the only black American officer--in the U.S. Embassy in Bagui, capital of Pandemi, a West African country with some parallels to Liberia. That would not be an easy role for a black American, anyway, but to give it a little more spin, Jake is the son of American missionaries who served in Pandemi during his childhood, before Jake's father was reassigned to the United States, as a janitor in a New York church. Jake is an angry man in a strangely familiar, yet alien world, constantly struggling to find out what's going on.
Pandemi's young president, Fasseke, a man Jake knew as a young boy, has decided to equip the country with a nuclear reactor to give it a cheap energy source. Though no black African country has yet taken that step, there is nothing terribly remarkable about the Third World building things it can barely afford--Kwame Nkrumah nearly bankrupted Ghana with the Volta River hydroelectric project. Except that Fasseke now has decided to begin operation of a fast breeder reactor that can turn nuclear waste into plutonium for nuclear weapons. That does catch the world's attention.
Not surprisingly, the United States is concerned, especially about Pandemi's growing friendship with Russia and China. (In the '60s and '70s, when the Cold War in Africa was at its height, Western operatives pressed for the overthrow of Nkrumah in Ghana and the Russians helped topple Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia.) In Pandemi, the U.S. mission suffers from having a lunatic CIA station chief bent on blowing up the reactor and overthrowing Fasseke. Just for good measure, the CIA fellow is a racist white--who decides to try to have Jake assassinated.
Into this frothy mixture, Williams adds a black American chanteuse interested in becoming the mistress of a neighboring African head of state. She accidentally gets lodged in a hotel in Bagui where Jake often visits, giving the book a brief respite from politics and race, but they never quite make it into bed. At this point, Williams might have the makings of a pretty good spy thriller--but unfortunately his characters are such toy devils and angels and the plot is so hokey that he loses the thread of it.
In fact, the author doesn't appear to be very committed to the plot, which he plays with now and then to keep the book moving along. Rather, he is more interested in describing the strange fabric of African society, where village elders mix magic and good sense to maintain a sense of family and values and where open-air jitney buses drive about with names like "Now a People Is Coming," "Apollo II" and "Pearly Gates."
In the end, the book is an opportunity lost. Williams' anger with the white world shows through at every turn, and it poisons, rather than energizes, the drama.
"What kind of music is be-pop, my son?" an African elder asks Fasseke.
"The kind of music white people could not easily steal from black people," answers the president.
The white CIA station chief is an out-of-control dunce named Klein who walks around saying things like, "We can't let Africa go red" and "Can't win them all." In the final scene, Jake decks him with a hard right, and you can sort of hear the cheering section in the back row of the theater applauding and throwing popcorn.
John Williams is too good a novelist ("The Man Who Cried I Am," "The Junior Bachelor Society" and "!Click Song") to be playing this silly old tune. He's at his best when he describes the inner conflict that black Americans suffer when they return to Africa. And he gives us glimpses of the real Africans, with their duality and inner conflicts on how to deal with Europe and America. One of the sweetest moments in the book comes when Jake goes back to the village where his parents were missionaries and tries to communicate with Fasseke's relatives, who view him with total suspicion and wonderment. The Africans, after all, are used to conflict, tribal, racial, colonial and otherwise, and see whites--and American blacks--more as an alien force to be manipulated or kept at bay, rather than raw evil. They regard black Americans, with all their affluence and alien ways, the way they would any European with dark skin.
Williams has trouble, though, stepping back from his players and examining the irony of their ways, and nowhere does he really seem to tap into the absurdity of an African country trying to create plutonium, the ultimate waste in a world of poverty and technological ignorance.
Williams, who now teaches English at Rutgers University, traveled Africa briefly in the '60s on special assignment for Newsweek. (He was never based there as a correspondent.) "Jacob's Ladder" reflects the clashes he found, between rural and urban Africa, between old and young Africa, and between races and tribes. The irony of the book is that the Africans are drawn with more clarity than the Americans. Maybe it is time for Williams to mellow a little, let down his guard as an angry black writer and concentrate more on just being a very fine writer.