Peace Corps Writers
The Turning Over is available from
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. . . write more honestly about our white protagonists, as William McCauley has done . . .
by William McCauley (Sierra Leone 1985–86)
Sag Harbor, NY: The Permanent Press
231 pages

Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1965–66)

Africa — the setting for the Westerners’ apocalyptic battle with amoral, prehistoric darkness! More than twenty years ago Chinua Achebe attacked this Euro-centric view, and its close relatives, as racist in his brilliant lecture on Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness.
     So, how can we Westerners record our impressions of an Africa struggling with corruption and turmoil without being trapped by the jaws of racism? One answer is to write more honestly about our white protagonists, as William McCauley has done in The Turning Over?
     He offers up American Robert Kelley, whose own profligate life-style foreshadows his disintegration. After escaping pressure to join the family business by joining the Peace Corps, he stays on in Sierra Leone with a British company that initiates development projects for the Sierra Leone government. Kelley even considers himself an African, although he’s honest enough to admit how race determines opportunity and comfort, a legacy of the colonial past.
    The atmosphere of failure and demise all around him parallels Kelley’s own character. His addiction to booze, jamba (pot), and sex would doom him in any environment, let alone the stereotypical African mangrove swamps and widespread corruption.
     Although rare, occasional hints of Kelley’s humanity keep us interested. When Kelley finishes building a cooperative fishery station, he must turn it over to the Sierra Leone government. His African successor insists on governing the “African way.” Knowing that will result in corruption and exploitation of the villagers, Kelley pleads: “It’s not a matter of African way or white way, it’s a matter of doing it the right way.” Furthermore, he displays genuine concern for the poor African masses who should be benefiting from these projects instead of being robbed blind by corrupt Sierra Leone officials.
     McCauley’s writing skills save this short novel. His protagonist rises above the norm of flat, boring, whiny man-boys. Never a threat to grab the torch of morality, Kelley is no match for Joseph Conrad’s Marlow. And instead of the innocence and purity in a “primitive” society that saves Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, Kelley finds an Africa of tribal clashes and violent struggles for spoils left over from colonial rule.
     Kelley would probably feel at home in Hemingway’s world. But even there, Kelley would unlikely survive the gangrene that eats away his foot. In the end, physically disabled and self-delusional, Kelley will live on, but I’m not sure why he should.

A superb ear and vivid style
Perhaps McCauley’s greatest skills are his superb ear for dialect and eye for description. Most PCVs in Africa can immediately relate to the Pidgin, its wonderful rhythms and clever juxtapositioning of words. “How de go de go, Pa?” “Hungry de catch me.”
     He invokes the sensory feel of mangrove swamps as he paddles his canoe on his symbolic journey to the edge of death near the sea, passing in out of hallucinations from fever and painkillers. McCauley’s straightforward, but vivid style snaps the perfect scene over and over again. When Kelley and African subordinates are traveling to small villages to plan fishery projects, McCauley writes:

    A breeze came and went, rippling the water. The air was dry, the sky white and featureless, the sun a pale ball hanging above the eastern horizon. They rounded a bend and passed a pair of Kroo canoes paddled by women. The fields along the river were no more than a foot higher than the river, and were flat and green with marsh grass and patches of rice. They motored past a long, low island covered by a tangle of dead brush and a few palm trees. A pair of herons stood in muddy shallows watching them.

     With all of his education and Peace Corps experience, Kelley remains an adolescent to the end. The book jacket promotes the story in part as a love affair between Kelley and Marie, an American expatriate working in Mali. Her appearance is short, but her presence is felt throughout. I would describe their love affair as uninhibited sex between the typical unfaithful male who can not control his libido and the typical mature female who insists on commitment and fidelity.
     Neither a tragic hero nor anti-hero, Kelley’s legacy hangs suspended in the thick, swampy air of Freetown and Yawni Bay and Sherbro Strait and Lake Mabesi.

Tony Zurlo, a poet and professor of English, is the former editor of the Friends of Nigeria newsletter. He lives in Arlington, Texas.

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