FICTION SHOWS, the adage goes. Nonfiction tells. John C. Kennedy, in his self-published novel, Last Lorry to Mbordo, tells us about a few Peace Corps Volunteers who teach at a college in the town of Mbordo in the fictional African country of Sakra during a tumultuous period in that nations history.
Two of those teachers are young men, Jeff and Jason. Most weekends, Jason travels 180 miles by lorry 12 hours each way to visit his PCV girlfriend, Karen, a teacher posted in Pandu. Jeff is dating and later fathers a child by a fellow teacher at the college, Enata, who is the daughter of a Sakraian chief.
The novels main character is an older, white-haired, Peace Corps Volunteer named Alice Manati. Alice is a 62-year-old, widowed, retired math teacher from DC, who teaches math at the University-College in Mbordo. We are told she is a wonderful woman whos done great things with her Sakraian students. But we dont see this. Instead, we see an unhappy, unimaginative, and, frankly, dislikable, old woman, who specializes in complaining, especially about her physical decrepitude, as if she were 90 instead of 62. (The reader wonders how she passed the Peace Corps screening process to begin with.)
The novels other characters are similarly unengaging. They are names without faces, voices without bodies. We do not see them, but we hear them speak, in long quotes that are less dialogue than diatribe.
Sakra, which the reader guesses is fashioned after Ghana, where RPCV Kennedy served as a math teacher from 1965 to 1968, is a newly independent Anglophone West African country whose president (referred to, tongue-in-cheek, as the Savior) is gunned down in a military coup halfway through the novel. Not long after, the general who replaced the president is murdered and replaced by a new chairman. A few months later, another coup occurs.
Alice the protagonists reaction to these events, like her reaction to most other things during her Sakraian sojourn, is simply surprise and disbelief. At a large social gathering, eight months into her service, for example, Alice is surprised to learn there is no ladies room available for her to use. No bathrooms! Alice exclaimed. Where are all of these people going? When shes told that the facilities consist of two rooms with wet floors, she exclaims, Thats not so bad for men, but what in hells name do we [women] do? Alice, the reader must assume, has spent her career focusing on numbers and never bothered to do her homework reading on Sakra before shipping out.
Despite the countrys political upheavals and menacing tribal troubles, life goes on as usual at University-College for some time, during which Alices fondest hope is to be bored stiff again. The dangers mount, but the PCVs are not evacuated.
Responding to the Peace Corps Directors inquiry, the U.S. State Department replies, Sit tight, do nothing, say nothing. Withdrawal of Peace Corps and other USAID personnel at present time would be interpreted as lack of confidence in government and future of Sakra. Might precipitate events that would be desirable to avoid.
Nevertheless, the situation soon deteriorates into chaos, the University-College shuts down, and its faculty, including Alice and her fellow-PCVs, all run for their lives. The Volunteers eventually return to safety in the States, while the war in Sakra, we are told, rages on.
In his acknowledgements John C. Kennedy thanks his editor for her many suggestions and confesses there were things he was too stubborn to change. This is too bad. Perhaps his editor had admonished him to show more and tell less.
As a writer, Mr. Kennedy obviously has the talent to tell a good story; but in this novel his telling is more journalistic than novelistic. The book lacks ticking [see The Ticking in this issue]. We are not made to care about the characters or the outcome. The reader is not swept up on a magic carpet and taken to a believable, yet imaginary, place. Author John C. Kennedy might one day write such a story. Unfortunately, this book, Last Lorry, is not the vehicle.
Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 199698), an honors graduate of Columbia University's writing program and author of the nonfiction book, Somewhere Child (Viking Press, 1981), was a writer and editor in New York City for 20 years. She now lives in northern New Mexico and teaches Essay Writing at UNM-Taos.