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The Two-Career, Zero-Sum Marriage : THE DARK PATH TO THE RIVER by Joanne Leedom-Ackerman (Saybrook Publishers: $19.95; 390 pp.)

January 17, 1988|Carolyn Slaughter | Slaugter is the author of "Dreams of the Kalahari" (Scribner & Sons)

Previous reviewers have said that Joanne Leedom-Ackerman writes a good short story; she certainly writes a good novel. "The Dark Path to the River" is set in New York, though much of its action has its roots in Africa. The book traces the links between Wall Street and Africa, politicians and bankers, but it is primarily about power.

A company called Afco has financed mining operations in an unnamed African country subject, like many others, to coups and civil wars. Doing risky business in the hope of high returns, Afco becomes mixed up in the conflicts between two politicians squabbling for dominance in a nation grasping for an indentity at any price. The possibilities for corruption leave no one with clean hands.

Mark Rosen, the quintessential investment banker, is a man led by his greed, not his instincts. In his ignorance of what can happen in countries that do not have economic self-reliance or political coherence, he fails to keep his investment from crashing: railways are blown up, people massacred and the product, ore, cannot reach its destination. It is a nice example of how American business--arrogant in itself--can have little impact on an underdeveloped frican country subject to its own urgencies.

Jenny, Mark's wife, a former journalist (Leedom-Ackerman is also a journalist) is trying to write a book about African women. She is also beginning to feel a distinct unease about her husband's direction in life. He is involved with a creepy little millionaire who might well be financing the government of the African country and would certainly seem to be taking a nice cut for doing so. He is trying to seduce Mark into a partnership. One of Jenny's former colleagues, Kay, is interested in a seduction of another kind.

As a result of his dalliance with Kay, Mark begins to treat his wife rather as he treats the squash ball he keeps in his office at moments of tension, slamming it into the plate glass window.

Though very good at returning the ball, he is a man who frequently misses the point.

The leader of the precarious African nation is in New York for discussions with the United Nations. The story is being covered by Jenny's friend, Olivia, who is personally involved with both the country and a revolutionary who would like to overthrow its present government. Things build towards an assassination plot.

Political matters often sound creaky in a novel and they do in this one, though Leedom-Ackerman is fastidious in dealing with both politics and economics. She is also good at pinpointing the different ways that men and women view the world and their respective places in it. The men have a directness and purpose that the women lack; they pursue their goals relentlessly, often towards greed and corruption, yet their tread is firm on the ground. The women, in comparison, though their vision is more clear, cannot find their feet and they remain a sex in shadow. This is as unfortunate to see in a novel as it is in life.

Jenny and Mark's home, containing one child, becomes a battlefield between two professionals, each in pursuit of their own career. The woman seems often to be bargaining from the wrong angle: that is, she demands time to work as retaliation against her husband's more simple right to it. She is also fighting against the invisible lures that make for his absence from the home: his work, an affair with another woman, the offer of a partnership which will take him abroad. Leedom-Ackerman sees the problems clearly, but she gives us no solutions. The casualty of the situation between these two appears to be Jenny's work which, because of the emotional disturbance in the home, remains unfocused and undone, adding to her list of resentments. In future fictions, as in life, we must move beyond this impasse. Let us hope that Leedom-Ackerman will help us to do so by giving us women characters who suffer from less paralysis, and men able to see women not merely as extensions of themselves.

"The Dark Path to the River" keeps its integrity until almost the end. Then I felt that she was losing it as the line jerked and gave way under the weight of an ending that strains credibility. The author may also have been less than convinced by the last convolutions of the plot, because here the writing becomes more uneven and she even succumbs to some didactic psychology. No matter--this is a book that provokes thought and is most entertaining to read.

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