cover image The Volunteer

The Volunteer

Carter Coleman. Warner Books, $28 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-446-52203-8

Impressive action scenes begin and end this debut novel by magazine journalist Coleman. Between them are brief, haunting descriptions of the incursions of pop culture on the rural life of Tanzania, but there's a heavy equatorial stillness at the heart of the story. Rutledge Jordan is a Peace Corps volunteer five months away from the end of his contract, teaching Usambara Mountain dwellers to farm fish. In his free time, he rescues a runt eaglet and trains it, and he obsesses about his failure to marry the woman back home and to settle into life as a member of a prestigious law firm in Memphis. When he meets Zanifa, a 16-year-old innocent engaged to the sinister local sultan and scheduled to undergo ritual circumcision before the ceremony, his lust for her and his scorn for the sultan provoke Jordan to make a grand, if self-serving, effort to save Zanifa from mutilation. A few Graham Greene-like characters hover at the edge of the narrative, but neither they nor Coleman's themes (the unworldly but uninnocent American in Africa, the coming of democracy to Tanzania) achieve three-dimensionality. Coleman ends up with an engaging travelogue but a formulaic story. (Mar.) FYI: Coleman lived for two years in the Usambara Mountains of Tanzania.