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Whiteman A Novel Tony D'Souza Harcourt: 288 pp., $22

April 23, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds

JACK DIAZ ("Adama Diomande," as he's known to the Worodougou people of the Ivory Coast) is not your average American volunteer in Africa. He's left his comfortable middle-class home in Chicago to work for Potable Water International, but after civil war breaks out in the Ivory Coast, he's unable to accomplish much in the way of potable water. Yet he stays on, smitten with Africa, in love with and loved by the people of his remote village. He lets himself be teased by the small boys ("Regards le blanc!") and earns the respect of the adults by growing his own food and learning their language. When he begins sleeping with prostitutes in the city, the issue of AIDS takes on personal meaning: He travels to neighboring villages and talks to reluctant audiences about preventive measures. In his insouciant voice, he uses the word "we" when speaking of Africans.

"Whiteman," which was excerpted in September in the New Yorker, was inspired by Tony D'Souza's experiences during a 2002 stint with the Peace Corps in the Ivory Coast. The book has a very real, immediate, nonfiction feel to it, even in Adama's frequent musings on the inescapable truth of his whiteness despite his desire to be black and experience the world as an African. Before he leaves the village to return to the U.S., he paints elaborate designs in vivid colors on all the doors on all the huts -- his parting gift. "The only proof of God in the world was color," he remembers being told as a child by an elderly acquaintance. "So why would the world have been made so full of color if there wasn't a God?"

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