We gave it a B
Before anything else is said, let’s give Philip Caputo a serious round of applause for Acts of Faith. In an era when too many American writers equate literary quality with tiny, ”exquisite” novels about, as the old song goes, ”feelings, nothing more than feelings,” here’s a book that is interested in some-thing meatier than the solipsistic graphing of internal emotional currents. Caputo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, memoirist (A Rumor of War), and novelist, takes as his massive subject Sudan, a land whose state of ”permanent crisis,” as he puts it, has only recently grabbed the attention of U.S. journalists, but which he’s apparently had on his mind since long before most people had ever heard of Darfur. The country, in Caputo’s vivid and credible depiction, seems to be at the center of every global catastrophe of the new millennium’s headlines, from self-righteous religious extremism to shattering poverty and starvation to reckless arms trade to the great peril of believing that if you’re on the side of the good guys you don’t have to know very much about what you’re stepping into. ”This entire century has made friends with the absurd,” laments one of his characters, ”and none are better friends with it than the Sudanese.”
Caputo has chosen as the vehicle for his journalistic and literary passion an almost defiantly unfashionable genre — the long (almost 700 pages), serious-minded geopolitical portmanteau melodrama. It’s the kind of book that hasn’t thrived since the early 1960s, the age of Leon Uris and of novels like Richard McKenna’s The Sand Pebbles. And this alternately enthralling and maddening attempt at a revival is a good demonstration of why it went the way of the dinosaurs. In Acts of Faith, a large cast — relief-aid aviators, revolutionary leaders, Evangelicals, philanthropists, good ol’ boys, arms-and-aircraft merchants, and CNN correspondents — play out their personal melodramas against a backdrop of keenly evoked political complexity. It’s the kind of novel that often gets labeled a soap opera, which isn’t fair to Caputo’s thoughtfully created characters. (One particularly acute portrait: a hard-charging American flyer who is ”willing to do almost anything, but only after he persuaded himself that it was for the greater good”; the ominous implications of that trait become ever clearer.) But it’s not entirely unfair either. Caputo has made his ensemble’s various couplings and uncouplings as tidy and diagrammatic (you can almost imagine a wall chart cuing him when it’s time to switch from plot A to plot B to plot C) as the world that surrounds them is messy, unpredictable, and unresolvable.
The result is a real oddity: a book that might have been better off as nonfiction. Caputo brings a reporter’s instinct and a fiction writer’s soft heart to a part of the world unexplored by most of his colleagues in both fields, and it pays off in a sustained, fierce depiction of a country riven by ”a war whose beginning no one can remember, whose end no one can see, whose purpose no one knows.” But he also wants us to pause for sentences like ”’Oh yes, here, now, like this,’ she whispered, turning to slide down his body.” That’s tough to do in a novel in which, for once, there’s so much compelling our attention outside the bedroom window.