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  • Acts of Faith
  • Written by Philip Caputo
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  • Acts of Faith
  • Written by Philip Caputo
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Written by Philip CaputoAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Philip Caputo

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On Sale: May 03, 2005
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-4000-4491-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis

Philip Caputo’s tragic and epically ambitious new novel is set in Sudan, where war is a permanent condition. Into this desolate theater come aid workers, missionaries, and mercenaries of conscience whose courage and idealism sometimes coexist with treacherous moral blindness. There’s the entrepreneurial American pilot who goes from flying food and medicine to smuggling arms, the Kenyan aid worker who can’t help seeing the tawdry underside of his enterprise, and the evangelical Christian who comes to Sudan to redeem slaves and falls in love with a charismatic rebel commander.

As their fates intersect and our understanding of their characters deepens, it becomes apparent that Acts of Faith is one of those rare novels that combine high moral seriousness with irresistible narrative wizardry.   

Excerpt

Man of All Races

In his early twenties, after two undistinguished and troubled years at university, Fitzhugh Martin had achieved a modest celebrity as center forward for the Harambe Stars, which are to Kenyan soccer as the New York Yankees are to baseball. A sportswriter had nicknamed him “The Ambler,” because he never seemed to run very fast, his leisurely movements caused not by slow feet but by a quick tactical eye that allowed him to read the field in a glance and be where he needed to be with economy of motion.

He traveled with the club throughout Africa, to Europe, and once to the United States. He saw something of the world, and what he saw—namely the shocking contrast between the West and his continent—convinced him to do something more with himself than chase a checkered ball up and down a field. He’d heard a kind of missionary call, quit soccer, and became a United Nations relief worker, first in Somalia and then in Sudan.

That was the story he told, but it wasn’t entirely true: a serious knee injury that required two operations was as responsible for his leaving the sport as a Pauline epiphany. Or maybe the injury was the mother of the epiphany; sitting on the bench with his taped knee, he knew his career was as good as over and wondered what to do with the rest of his life. Of course, if he hadn’t had a social conscience to begin with, he would not have made the choice he did, and that conscience was formed by his ancestry. He had come to Kenya from the Seychelles Islands when he was eight years old, the eldest of three children born to a French, Irish, and Indian father and a mother who was black, Arab, and Chinese. The emigration took Fitzhugh from a place where tribalism was unknown and race counted for little to a land where tribe and race counted for everything. His family wasn’t poor—his father managed a coastal resort near Mombasa—but he came to identify with the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, because he grew up on the margins of Kenyan society, a boy without a tribal allegiance or a claim to any one race, for all the races of the earth were in him. He was the eternal outsider who was never allowed to forget that he was an alien, even at the height of his athletic fame. His skin was brown, yet the white Kenyans, children and grandchildren of colonial settlers, were more accepted than he, a tribe unto themselves.

After he worked for a year in Somalia, the UN promoted him to field monitor and assigned him to its operations in Sudan. Now a corporal in the army of international beneficence, he wandered in southern Sudan for weeks at a time, stalking the beast of hunger and devising strategies to hold the numbers of its victims to some acceptable minimum. That vast unhappy region captured him body and soul; it became the stage where Fitzhugh Martin played the role he believed destiny had assigned him. “The goddamned, bleeding, fucked-up Sudan,” he would say. “I don’t know what it is about that place. It sucks you in. You see some eighteen-year-old who’s been fighting since he was fourteen and can tell you war stories that will give you nightmares, but drop a piece of ice in his hands and he’s amazed. Never seen or felt ice before, never seen water turned to stone, and you get sucked in.” He meant to do all in his power to save the southern Sudanese from the curses of the apocalypse and a few the author of Revelation hadn’t thought of, like the tribalism that caused the southerners to inflict miseries on themselves. That was where his cosmopolitan blood became an advantage. He moved with ease among Dinka, Nuer, Didinga, Tuposa, Boya; the tribes trusted the tribeless man who had no ethnic axes to grind.

He loved being in the bush and hated returning to the UN base at Loki. It had the look of a military installation, ringed by coils of barbed wire. The field managers and flight coordinators and logistics officers—to his eyes a mob of ambitious bureaucrats or risk-lovers seeking respectable adventure—drove around like conquerors in white Land Rovers sprouting tall radio antennae; they lived and worked in tidy blue and white bungalows, drank their gins and cold beers at bars that looked like beach resort tiki bars, and ate imported meats washed down with imported wines. When Loki’s heat, dust, and isolation got to be too much, they went to Europe on R&R, or to rented villas in the cool highland suburbs of Nairobi, where they were waited on, driven, and guarded by servants whose grandparents probably had waited on, driven, and guarded the British sahibs and memsahibs of bygone days. They were the new colonials, and Fitzhugh grew to loathe them as much as he loathed the old-time imperialists who had pillaged Africa in the name of the white man’s burden and the mission civilisatrice.

When he wasn’t in Sudan, he who had grown up on the edge of things dwelled on the edge of the compound, in a mud-walled hut with a makuti roof and two windows lacking glass and screens; it wasn’t much better than the squalid twig-and-branch tukuls of the Turkana settlement that sprawled outside the wire, along the old Nairobi-Juba road. Inside were a hard bed under a mosquito net, a chair, and a desk knocked together out of scrap lumber. Fitzhugh’s only concession to modern comfort was electricity, supplied by a generator; his only bow to interior decoration, the posters of his heroes, Bob Marley, Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela. Asceticism did not come naturally to him. Self-denial is easy for people with attenuated desires and appetites; Fitzhugh’s were in proportion to his size. He could down a sixteen-ounce Tusker in two or three swallows and inhaled meals the way he did cigarettes. He loved women, and when he came out of the bush, he would sweep through the compound, scooping up Irish girls and American girls and Canadian girls. (He stayed away from the local females, fearing AIDS or the swifter retribution of a Turkana father’s rifle or spear.) Inevitably, he would feel guilty about indulging himself and go on a binge of monkish abstinence.

He met Douglas Braithwaite exactly two months and eighteen days after the UN fired him, an encounter whose date he would come to recall with as much bitterness as precision. Years later he tried to persuade himself that he and the American had come together for reasons he couldn’t fathom but hoped to discover, hidden somewhere in the machinery of destiny or in the designs of an inscrutable providence. Who among us, when an apparently chance meeting or some other random occurrence changes us profoundly, can swallow the idea that it was purely accidental?

Over and over Fitzhugh would trace the succession of seeming coincidences that caused the path of his life to converge with Douglas’s. He never would have laid eyes on the man if he hadn’t lost his job; he would not have lost it if . . . well, you get the idea. If he could map how it happened, he would find out why.

Eventually Fitzhugh’s mental wanderings led him back to the day he was born, but he was no closer to uncovering the secret design. So he was forced to abandon his quest for the why and settle for the how, a narrative whose beginning he fixed on the day a bonfire burned in the desert.

The High Commissioners of World Largesse, as he called his employers, occasionally overestimated the amount of food they would need to avert mass starvation in Sudan. Blind screw-ups were sometimes to blame; sometimes field monitors deliberately exaggerated the severity of conditions, figuring it was better to err on that side than on the other; and sometimes nature did not cooperate, failing to produce an expected catastrophe. Surpluses would then pile up in the great brown tents pitched alongside the Loki airstrip, tins of cooking oil and concentrated milk, sacks of flour, sorghum, and high-protein cereal stacked on pallets. Once in a while the stuff sat around beyond the expiration dates stamped on the containers. It then was burned. That was standard procedure, and it was followed rigorously, even if the oil had not gone rancid or the flour mealy or the grain rotten.

Mindful that cremating tons of food would make for bad press, the High Commissioners had the dirty work done under cover of darkness at a remote dump site, far out in the sere, scrub-covered plateaus beyond Loki. Truck convoys would leave the UN base before dawn with armed escorts, their loads covered by plastic tarps; for the Turkana, men as lean as the leaf-bladed spears they carried, knew scarcity in the best of times and were consequently skilled and enthusiastic bandits.

And it was the Turkana who blew the whistle. One morning a band of them looking for stray livestock in the Songot mountains, near the Ugandan border, spotted a convoy moving across the plain below and smoke and flames rising from a pit in the distance. The herdsmen went to have a look. That year had been a particularly hard one for the Turkana—sparse rains, the bones of goats and cows chalking the stricken land, shamans crying out to Akuj Apei to let the heavens open. The bush telegraph flashed the news of what the herdsmen had seen from settlement to settlement: The wazungu were burning food! More than all the Turkana put together had ever seen, much less eaten.

The word soon reached Malachy Delaney, a friend of Fitzhugh’s who had been a missionary among the Turkana for so long that they considered him a brother whose skin happened to be white. Apoloreng, they called him, Father of the Red Ox, because his hair had been red when he first came to them. He spoke their dialects as well as they and was always welcome at their rituals and ceremonies. In fact, he was sometimes asked to preside, and anyone who saw him, clapping his hands to tribal songs, leading chants of call and response, had to wonder who had converted whom. Malachy had been reprimanded by the archbishop in Nairobi and once by the Vatican itself for his unorthodox methods.

A frequent topic, when Malachy and Fitzhugh got together over whiskey in one of the expat bars, was Fitzhugh’s employer. Although Malachy was a man of the Left, he once told Fitzhugh that he admired the American senator Jesse Helms, probably the only man on earth who despised the United Nations as much as he. It had encamped in the heart of Turkana land to lavish aid on the Sudanese while doing nothing for his parishioners. Hadn’t helped them dig so much as a single well.

When he learned that the UN was destroying food that could have filled Turkana bellies, he lived up to his nickname. His hair was gray now, but his broad, blocky face, scholarly and pugnacious at the same time, was scarlet when he appeared at Fitzhugh’s tukul to vent his outrage. Destroying it! And it looks like they’ve been making a practice of it, did you know that? Fitzhugh answered that he’d heard as much, but of course he’d never seen it and couldn’t prove it. Proof, if it’s proof you’re needing, here it is, Malachy fumed, producing a charred can of powdered milk from his daypack. The herdsmen had scavenged it from the ashes, he added, and sat down under the eave, on one of the crates that served as Fitzhugh’s veranda furniture.

“More in there if you care to see it. It won’t surprise me if some of the lads ambush a convoy one of these days and take the bloody stuff for themselves, and if they kill somebody in the process, I’ll by God give them absolution in advance.” Malachy looked out across the asphalt meadow of the landing field, toward the huts beyond the barbed-wire fence, their domed roofs leakproofed with green, white, and blue sheets of plastic. “Ah, Fitz, I just might nick a rifle and lead them to it myself.” Malachy had a martial streak; Fitzhugh thought that a part of him regretted joining the priesthood instead of the IRA.

After he’d cooled off, he came up with a sounder plan. He had friends on the staff of the Nation, Nairobi’s most influential paper, and at the Kenya Television Network. If he got advance word about where and when the next burn was going to be, he would see to it that reporters and cameramen were there to record it. A few of his Turkana lads could show them where to hide—it would be a kind of bloodless ambush. The whole sorry scene would be captured on film, and then the UN scoundrels would be shamed into stopping their unconscionable practice. Accurate intelligence would, of course, be critical to success.

Fitzhugh gave him his full attention. He’d returned the week before from the Sudanese province of Bahr el Ghazal, where he’d been sent to conduct a “needs assessment” after Khartoum mounted an offensive against the SPLA. The rebel army didn’t suffer much, but the people did. Villages leveled by Antonov bombers, fields set afire, livestock slaughtered. They were mostly Dinka tribesmen out there, a very tall people with little flesh and fat to spare. Thousands filled the dusty roads: dead men, dead women, and dead children who did not realize they were dead and so struggled on through the heat, past the prostrate forms of those who had acknowledged their doom; struggled on seeking the brief clemency of an acacia’s shade, the small mercy of a cup of water, a handful of sorghum. Each one of those dark, lofty figures looked as insubstantial as a pillar of smoke. My goodness, he thought, listening to Malachy, a tenth of the surplus that had been put to the match could have saved them all.

To abbreviate, his espionage was successful. So was Malachy’s media ambush. The story made the front page and led the nightly news on KTN. Images of sacks, tins, boxes—forty tons of food!—consigned to the flames. The Father of the Red Ox went on the air to condemn the UN in the most florid terms, and to plead for the surpluses to be distributed among his beloved Turkana if they could not be used in Sudan. The foreign press was quick to pick up on the story. Detachments of journalists assaulted Loki. UN officials, feverishly trying to control the damage, issued denials and half-truths. Things were quite exciting for a while, but predictably the scandal died down, the journalists left, and nothing was done. The only actions the High Commissioners took were to bar Malachy from the UN compound and to launch a quiet internal investigation to find out who had tipped him off.

Fitzhugh’s friendship with Malachy was common knowledge. He soon found himself undergoing a cordial but persistent interrogation in the security office. He told a few lies, thought better of it, and confessed, showing no contrition whatever. His supervisor, a Canadian woman, told him he was through. Naturally he did not merely nod and leave. He made a speech, detailing the UN’s sins. She heard him out and, when he was done, told him that he possessed an “insufferably Hebraic soul,” a reference not to his religious affiliation but to his judgmentalism. He expected too much of people and human institutions, she said. Not everyone could be a saint; nor was relief work a religion.





Fitzhugh had been in the bush for so long that he’d forgotten the pleasant emotions the sea aroused in him. He had gotten used to living away from it but never stopped missing it. When he saw it again, from the balcony of his family’s flat on the coast, he felt as if he’d been reunited with a cherished friend. During his first week of unemployment he spent two or three hours a day staring at it, not a thought in his head. The cobalt vastness of the Indian Ocean, the advance and recession of the tides, the surf’s suck and draw, constant yet never monotonous, awakened vestigial memories of his island childhood. The salty winds cleared the oppressiveness that had been weighing on his soul. His work in Sudan had narrowed his vision and restricted his horizons; cut off from the rest of the world, caught up in the intense emotions fostered by bearing witness to war, starvation, and epidemics, he had almost lost the power to imagine places where people had futures that extended beyond the next day and had dreams of something more than finding a crust of bread. The sea’s breath, scented with the promise of new possibilities hidden beyond the seam of water and sky, assured him that such places still existed and encouraged him to believe that peace and plenty might one day come even to Sudan. At such moments the colors and dimensions of the sea, its sounds and smells, seemed to be those of hope itself.

He loved being back on the old Swahili coast, full of mongrels like himself, children of the sea’s human wrack. It was good to hear music and to wander Mombasa’s sultry and intricate streets; good not to listen for the drone of approaching Antonovs. Maybe it was too good. Fitzhugh’s tendency to swing between extremes kicked in. Having denied himself for so long, he now abandoned himself to the delights of Kenya’s answer to the Costa del Sol or Miami Beach. A few club owners remembered him from his star-athlete days and bought him rounds on the house. An old friend from high school, the son of a local political boss, knew a Nigerian who supplied him with prime-grade cocaine, and the two schoolmates would snort themselves into blabbering insomnia a couple of nights a week. Fitzhugh danced in the discos and slept with English and German and Scandinavian girls as if he’d spent the last six months on one of the trading dhows that sail the monsoons from Mombasa to India.

His conduct appalled his parents. Bad enough that he was thirty-three years old, out of work, and living under their roof. His father told him that he would roll up the welcome mat if he did not find something useful to do with himself, and quickly. Kenya is not an ideal country in which to find employment, so he thought Fitzhugh should go to work at his hotel, starting at the bottom, as a doorman. He was the proper size for that job. The doormen at the Safari Beach Lodge were costumed to look like something out of The Arabian Nights. Fitzhugh could not imagine himself got up like that, grinning at fat tourists, hailing taxis, hefting luggage for tips.

He was saved by something that approached divine intervention and inclined him to believe that his partnership with Douglas Braithwaite had been foreordained. Kenya’s phone service isn’t famous for its reliability, yet Malachy, calling from Nairobi one afternoon, got through on the first try. His ring came as Fitzhugh was leaving his parents’ flat to speak to his father at the hotel. Five seconds later, and he would have been gone.

Malachy had been summoned to the capital for what he called his semiannual dressing-down by the archbishop. During his visit (and here was another coincidence that didn’t seem coincidental to Fitzhugh in retrospect), he happened to bump into an old classmate from the seminary, John Barrett, who had told him about a job opportunity—

“I can’t get away from Irish priests!” Fitzhugh interrupted.

“This would be a former priest,” Malachy informed him. “A former Catholic priest. John was a missionary in Sudan for, oh, I would say fifteen years. It seems a Nuban woman persuaded him that celibacy was an unnatural state. He got some official or other to marry them. Pretty common arrangement in Africa, but the wrong people found out and John had to turn in his collar. So he switched. He’s now an ordained minister in the Episcopal Church of Sudan.”

“And what is the job opportunity? Altar boy? Do Episcopalians have altar boys?”

“John is at present unemployed as a minister,” Malachy replied. “He’s just been hired to direct relief operations in Sudan for a nongovernmental organization, International People’s Aid. He’s looking to hire someone with field experience, and I recommended you. Feel a bit responsible for your situation, don’t you know.”

Fitzhugh hesitated—he’d never heard of International People’s Aid.

“They’re fairly new on the scene, based in Canada, well funded I’m told, all nongovernmental sources. They are planning to take some bold steps. How soon can you get up here?”

Fitzhugh had read somewhere that the greatest happiness lies in living for others. The self and its appetites, the satisfaction of which only yields deeper hungers, are to the soul as mooring cables to an airship. To cut them willingly and without regret is to know true emancipation, the kind that cannot be granted by constitutions, proclamations, manifestos. Yes, he needed a job, but in speaking to Malachy, he realized that seeing hungry mouths fed and knowing that he’d done his bit to feed them had been more gratifying than anything else he’d done. Relief work was a religion, at least to his way of thinking. In a way it was an act of faith that infused his actions with spiritual value. He missed it and the freedom he found in it from the inner tyrant who kept demanding, I want, I want, I want.

He booked a seat on the next morning’s flight to Nairobi. One way.





The Reverend Father Malachy Delaney would have accused himself of speaking high treason if he ever uttered a civil, much less an admiring, word about English aristocracy. Inbred twits who could no longer manage even to be interestingly decadent, their antics fodder for Fleet Street tabloids, their sole achievement was the perpetuation of their titles and privileges decades after their class had outlived its relevance.

He made an exception of Lady Diana Briggs, partly because she was a Kenyan citizen, British by ancestry only, and partly because her title was conferred rather than hereditary, bestowed for her good works throughout Africa. An admirable woman, hardworking and selfless, was how Malachy described her as he and Fitzhugh drove from the airport to her house in Karen, the Nairobi suburb that remained a kind of game reserve for Caucasians. Lady Briggs had spent several years in refugee camps, laboring to repatriate displaced Africans, and when repatriation was out of the question, she helped them emigrate to whatever countries would take them in. She had sponsored scholarships for poor Kenyan children, served with the Red Cross in Rwanda, and had a genius for getting grant money. Now she was lending her expertise, her time, and some of her money to International People’s Aid.

Fitzhugh wasn’t sure how much time or expertise she had, but when he and Malachy got to her place, it was apparent that she didn’t lack for money. Two askaris opened a steel gate, admitting them to a world as remote from grimy, crumbling Nairobi as the land of her ladyship’s forebears. Acres of grass and garden, shaded by tamarind and eucalyptus; a rambling main house with white stucco walls, a clay-tile roof, and a veranda upon which wicker chairs practically begged you to sit down with a drink; a guest cottage; a carriage house with a Mercedes sedan and a Toyota Land Cruiser parked beside it; a small stable, an exercise ring. It was February, the beginning of the dry season, and the air at the foot of the Ngong hills was crisp and clear, scented by frangipani, hibiscus, mimosa. Fitzhugh recalled that perfume, and how it went immediately to his head, like good gin.

While a servant went to summon Diana, the two men waited in the foyer of the main house. Fitzhugh looked at Malachy and raised his eyebrows.

“Ah, now then, Fitz, I know your feelings about upper-crust do- gooders. Believe me, she’s different.”

“Different how?”

Malachy answered that her mind wasn’t the usual hatchery of idiotic schemes to uplift the dark-skinned downtrodden. Diana was practical, hard-headed. She knew what would work in Africa and what would not because she was as African as any Kikuyu, her family having been in Kenya for three generations.

Fitzhugh pointed at the sepia photographs on the foyer walls: brutal sahibs standing over lions they had shot, memsahibs wearing white muslin dresses and severe expressions—you could almost hear them ordering houseboys beaten for trying to clean tarnished silver plate by rubbing it with gravel.

“Atoning for her ancestors’ sins with all her charity work?”

“It isn’t charity,” replied Malachy. “And as for why she does what she does, well now, what difference does that make, so long as she does the right thing?”

“Apoloreng! You are late!”

Her tone was cheerfully scolding: a hostess greeting a habitually tardy but always welcome guest.

Malachy made a pretense of looking at his watch and pleaded heavy traffic. The bloody traffic in Nairobi got worse by the day.

“Everything in this country gets worse by the day,” she said, embraced him, and gave him each of her cheeks to kiss.

Malachy made the introductions. Diana Briggs took a half-step backward and extended her hand as she looked Fitzhugh up and down with the bluest eyes he had ever seen.

“I’d heard you were a footballer, and I must say, you look the part.”

Her smile fell on him like a gift, and her accent, thankfully, lacked the marbles-in-the-mouth mutter of the British upper classes. She spoke with the precision of a BBC news reader.

Fitzhugh was something of a sexist. To his mind, beauty forgave almost everything in a woman. Not that Diana Briggs was exceptionally beautiful; she only seemed so in comparison with the picture he had formed of a stout matron, Malachy having told him that she was in her early fifties. The body that suggested itself under a black cotton blouse and a pair of linen trousers, while it wasn’t slender, was a long way from matronly. If there was any gray in her blond hair, it had been artfully disguised. Only the cat’s whiskers at the corners of her eyes and the crescent furrows at the corners of her mouth betrayed her age, and you had to be within an arm’s length of her to see them; otherwise, you would have sworn she wasn’t beyond thirty-five. All this and the smashing smile made it impossible for Fitzhugh to dislike her, as he’d been prepared to do.

He couldn’t resist complimenting her looks. She responded with a toss of her head and a short, self-deprecatory laugh before telling the servant, in flawless Swahili, to bring in a fresh pot of tea.

They followed her through a hall decorated with ancestral memorabilia—crossed elephant tusks, the hide of a leopard that appeared to have been slain back in the days when Denys Finch-Hatton and Isak Dinesen were loving it up. Diana’s loose trousers flowed about her hips and legs as she walked, and the swirl of linen over flesh would have been erotic if it weren’t for her brisk, straight-backed stride, like a sergeant major’s on parade. They entered a study—a lot of old books, more old photographs and moth-eaten skins, a Masai buffalo-hide shield hanging over a fireplace, in front of which two men sat, backs to the door.

“John, Doug, the circle for our seance is now complete,” Diana said.

The pair stood. One was in his forties, going bald, and stood five-six at the tallest. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, and his complexion was the color of uncooked oats. This was John Barrett. When, with a kind of reflexive respect, Fitzhugh called him “Father Barrett,” he grinned tightly and reminded him, in a brogue less pronounced than Malachy’s, that he had lost claim to that title.

“It’s just plain John,” he said.

The other man was about Fitzhugh’s height, with thick hair hued like khaki, a slim frame, and a long, thin nose, slightly hooked, giving him the aspect of a handsome raptor. He might have been thirty, though he easily could have passed for an undergraduate. Straight away Fitzhugh knew he was an American. It wasn’t the cowboy boots and Levi’s that declared his nationality, nor the scrubbed, healthy complexion, as if he’d just stepped out of the shower after a game of pick-up basketball. It was the way he stood, chin cocked up, shoulders slouched just a little, projecting the relaxed belligerence of a citizen of the nation that ran the world. Fitzhugh imagined that a young Englishman would have struck a similar stance out in India a century ago, or a young Roman in the court of some vassal Gaul.

“Doug Braithwaite,” he drawled, shaking Malachy’s hand, then Fitzhugh’s, gripping his forearm with his other hand, as though they were old comrades, reunited.

“Fitzhugh Martin.” He flexed his arm after a moment to signal Braithwaite to let it go.

“Great to meet you. Been hearing a lot about you.”

If it’s possible for eyes to embrace another person, his embraced Fitzhugh. They had that effect on everyone, creating an instant intimacy. Clear and gray, giving off the appealing gleam of artificial pearls, they flattered you the moment they fell on you, the directness of their gaze making you feel that he was interested only in you.

“It’s all been good,” he went on. “We’ve got something in common. We’re both on the UN’s shit list.”

“Doug used to fly for the UN out of Loki,” Diana interjected.

“I prefer to say that I flew for an airline contracted to the UN. PanAfrik Airways. Copilot on Hercs mostly,” he added, turning again to Fitzhugh. “I’m surprised we never ran into each other. It’s a big operation out there, but not that big.”

“Evidently it’s big enough for us not to have run into each other. I was in the field most of the time.”

“Got the heave-ho a couple of weeks ago.” There was an undertone of pride rather than shame in the statement. “Ran afoul of regulations. You know what I mean, Fitz.”

Actually, he didn’t quite but was somehow embarrassed to say so. He asked whom Braithwaite was flying for now.

“Myself, if I can ever get my hands on an airplane,” he answered, with a smile that looked a little forced.

“So what regulations did you run afoul of?”

“It would be quicker to tell you which ones I didn’t, Fitz,” came the evasive answer. “Sorry. Is Fitz okay, or do you prefer Fitzhugh?”

The American had very nice manners. Fitz was fine. Braithwaite insisted that he call him Doug.

“Brilliant,” Diana said, displaying her brilliant teeth for emphasis. “Now that we’re all on a first-name basis, shall we get on with things?”

“Things” turned out to be a kind of job interview, with Diana and Barrett asking what exactly Fitzhugh had done for the UN for how long and why he’d left. Malachy had told them all about that, but now apparently they needed to hear it from Fitzhugh himself. Barrett looked elfin, but there was nothing elfin about his manner. Pitched forward in a green leather armchair—the kind you see in men’s clubs—he fired his questions like a prosecutor. There seemed to be an anger in him; he was a regular little kettle on perpetual boil, though the source of the flame wasn’t immediately clear. Whatever, the man’s intensity compensated for his size; it forced everyone to pay attention to him, and (Fitzhugh doing some psychologizing) maybe that was the reason for it.

The servant came in, quietly served tea, and stole out again. The nature of the questions changed. What did Fitzhugh think the southern Sudanese were fighting for? Independence? Autonomy? A unified Sudan under a secular government? No idea, he replied. He wasn’t sure if they knew any longer. Sometimes he had the impression that the rebels were fighting out of sheer habit. After all, they had been at it, off and on, for thirty years.

“Out of habit, you say?” Barrett leaned farther forward, so that his body was bent like a stubby hairpin. “Oh, I cannot agree with that, not at all. They’re fighting because those butchers in Khartoum don’t give them any choice. Fight or die—it’s that simple, and make no mistake about it.”

“I suppose that’s true.” Fitzhugh, feeling a bit like a pupil who has given the wrong answer, glanced sidelong at Malachy for help, but he gave none; nor did Douglas Braithwaite, sitting directly across, long legs outstretched while he chewed on the tips of his aviator’s sunglasses and looked as if he were weighing Fitzhugh’s every word.

“There’s no supposin’ either,” said Barrett. His pallid face glowed. “It’s jihad for the Arabs, and there’s no quarter given in a jihad. Allah gives his stamp of approval to mass murder.” Barrett sat back and took a sip of tea, the color fading from his cheeks. “This war isn’t like these other African dust-ups. It’s a continuation of the Crusades. The crescent versus the cross. Comes down to that, wouldn’t you say?”

The war was nowhere near as clear-cut as that, but a voice in the back of Fitzhugh’s head cautioned him not to voice such an observation. Gray did not appear to be Barrett’s favorite color.

“Pardon me,” he said, wondering if it had been a mistake to buy a one-way ticket. “I’ve come all the way from the coast, thinking you were going to talk to me about a job.”

“And that is what we are doing. Isn’t that what we are doing?”

Barrett glanced at Diana, sitting alongside him, her legs crossed, hands clasped over a knee, hair aglow in the dazzle slicing through the casement windows.


From the Hardcover edition.
Philip Caputo|Author Q&A

About Philip Caputo

Philip Caputo - Acts of Faith

Photo © Michael Priest

Philip Caputo worked for nine years for the Chicago Tribune and shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for his reporting on election fraud in Chicago. He is the author of seven other works of fiction and two memoirs, including A Rumor of War, about his service in Vietnam, and four works of nonfiction. He divides his time between Connecticut and Arizona.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with

Philip Caputo

author of

Acts of Faith


Q: Thirty years ago you crossed the deserts of Sudan in a trip that inspired your novel Horn of Africa. How much time have you spent in Africa since and what inspired you to revisit Africa in Acts of Faith?

A: Several months altogether, spread over time. There was a gap of 25 years between my trip to Sudan and Eritrea and my next visit to sub-Saharan Africa in 2000, when I went to Kenya on an assignment for National Geographic Adventure magazine. A year later, for the same publication, I returned to Kenya to cover the airlift of humanitarian aid into southern Sudan. In the course of that assignment, I also flew into Somalia with bush pilots who were delivering both aid and khat to that country, an interesting juxtaposition of missions. Dope on the morning flight, food, water, and clothes in the afternoon. Well before I arrived in Lokichokio, the Kenyan border town that is headquarters for the UN-sponsored airlift (which was dubbed Operation Lifeline Sudan), I’d heard rumors that some aid pilots and non-governmental organizations were smuggling arms and ammunition to the Sudanese rebels, disguising the shipments as humanitarian assistance. I was able to confirm the rumors. Representatives from one European NGO, which shall remain nameless, told me how they concealed AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers in deliveries of non-lethal aid. Two pilots showed me videos of their planes bringing in tons of mortar and small-arms ammunition. They would fly out of Lokichokio with empty or partially-loaded aircraft, giving false flight plans to the UN authorities at the airfield, then land at clandestine airstrips in Sudan, pick up the weapons, and fly on to rebel base areas. It was supposed to be very hush-hush, and I was made to understand that I ought to keep this information to myself. Of course, as a journalist, I could not do that, and told my sources that I could not. The story appeared in the December, 2001 issue of National Geographic Adventure, and was the inspiration for Acts of Faith.

Q: What kind of research and personal experiences informs this novel?

A: Some of my personal experiences, as described above, went into the writing of the novel, considerably transformed by my imagination. I flew in C-130s on airdrops over Sudan, in planes contracted by independent NGOs on other aid missions. Because Sudan is an immense country and its civil war a complicated conflict, relying on first-hand experiences alone would have required me to spend not weeks or months but possibly years in the country. That was impossible. Therefore, I did a lot of research, interviewing around twenty people — aid workers, pilots, rebel leaders, Sudanese civilians, and UN officials. I also read roughly thirty books about Sudan, most in their entirety, some in part.

Q: Douglas, Wesley, Fitzhugh, Quinette, Diana and the whole cast of characters are so fully realized it seems they must be in some ways modeled on real people you have encountered in your travels. Without naming names of course, were any of them inspired by people you know?

A: To somewhat arbitrarily assign percentages, I would say that Douglas, Quinette, and Diana are 90 percent imagined and ten percent modeled on real people. With Wesley and Fitzhugh, the split might be closer to fifty-fifty. To expand on this a bit, Quinette was born wholly out of my imagination. In my original conception of Acts of Faith, I had her falling in love with, and eventually marrying, Douglas. I was perhaps 50 pages into an early draft when, in the notes and journal I had kept in Sudan, I came across a story a source had told me about Emma McCune, a young, aristocratic British woman who had married Riek Machar, who had been second in command of the Sudanese rebel forces. It occurred to me that my American, non-aristocratic Quinette would be more likely to fall for a Sudanese rebel officer than she would for Douglas, and that this would make a more satisfying story. And so I changed her lover from Douglas to Lt. Col. Goraende.

Q: The level of misery wrought by the war and famine in Sudan is so unbelievably difficult for westerners to comprehend. Was it a challenge to try and convey the complicated politics and history of the region?

A: Challenging would be an understatement. It would have been much easier if I had been writing nonfiction, but it was very hard to explain Sudan’s tangled politics and history, which were central to the novel’s action, in a way that avoided over-simplification, made things clear to the reader, and satisfied the demands of art. I did not want my research to show. As much as possible, I tried to steer clear of writing expository passages or disguising exposition as dialogue. The information had to be woven, seamlessly, I hoped, into the narrative fabric. I must have rewritten some pages and paragraphs a dozen times or more before they sounded right.

Q: There have been so many grand scale tragedies in Africa and yet it seems they have never gotten the kind of attention in the U.S. that they merit. Why do you think that is?

A: The conventional wisdom would answer, “Racism.” I don’t think so. If racism were the reason for the lack of attention you allude to, why have so many African-American politicians, commentators and civil rights leaders been as inclined to ignore or to give short shrift to Africa’s plight as whites? To my mind, there are two explanations: one is realpolitik — Africa is not, or at least is not seen to be, central to America’s vital interests; two is more or less emotional — Africa's problems (endless tribal/ethnic conflicts, pervasive corruption, AIDS, and horrendous leaders) seem intractable, breeding a kind of despair in people who would like to help Africans resolve these issues but cannot see how. For that reason, I deeply admire former Senator and UN ambassador John Danforth, who spent an enormous amount of time and effort helping to broker the armistice agreement in Sudan that was signed only a few weeks ago. He did the damn near impossible.


Q: The idea of exile, of strangers in a strange place, has recurred throughout your work. The characters in Acts of Faith are drawn to Africa for different reasons–greed, opportunity, adventure, idealism. What is it about people out of their home territory and caught up in forces beyond their control, that fascinates you as a writer?

A: As we used to say in Vietnam, “This is where you find out who you are.” Most people spend their lives in what is commonly called their “comfort zone.” They fashion personas for themselves, which they presume to be their true characters, sets of attitudes, which they presume reflect their deepest beliefs, and modes of behavior, which they presume express their morals. Seldom are their presumptive characters, beliefs and personal morals put to the test. They might be compared to vessels that sail only in calm, safe waters. It has been my experience that when people are taken out of their comfort zones, whether voluntarily or by circumstances beyond their control, and placed in strange environments or in alien situations, they discover if their self image is what they have thought it to be. It has also been my experience, alas, that these epiphanies are as often as not unflattering, revealing hidden flaws and weaknesses. You find out that you’re not as brave, compassionate, or smart as you had believed. Sometimes, however, you find resources of strength you hadn’t realized were there. As a writer, I am a student of human nature, so this process of self-discovery under stress fascinates me.

Q: Is it possible to “do good” in a place seemingly without a moral compass?

A: By “without a moral compass” I assume you mean places or situations where the moral guideposts are absent, where the boundaries between right and wrong are not clearly surveyed, so to speak. Yes, it is quite possible to “do good” in such places, such circumstances, but it isn’t easy. The one doing the good, or trying to, must have a sound character and guard against the passions that could lead him or her to “do bad” in the name of “doing good.” That’s what happens to some of the main characters in Acts of Faith. They take sides, become partisans, and end up contributing to the suffering and destruction they had initially set out to relieve.

Q: While this novel is clearly informed by much research, it is also a thrilling page turning adventure and love story(s). What are the challenges in constructing a novel that is both informative and timely and yet also entertaining?

A: The challenge is to remember that you are creating narrative art, not the written version of a TV docu-drama. The Elizabethan poet, Sir Philip Sydney, said the object of poetry is to “delight and instruct.” That is the purpose of all literature, but I think emphasis should be laid on “delight.” Maybe “compel” or “engage” would be a better word. The reader is going to be more engaged by a character and his or her story, less by information about a place or an event. I should also mention that Acts of Faith is not a book for anyone who wants to learn about contemporary Sudan. It is not, because it was not intended to be, a documentary thinly disguised as fiction. Yes, I tried for a feeling of verisimilitude, I tried to give an accurate impression of the place and the civil war, but the novel is by no means factually accurate. It is a work of the imagination based on fact.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Devastating. . . . Acts of Faith will be to the era of the Iraq war what Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American became to the Vietnam era. . . . Powerful.” —The New York Times

Acts of Faith should be required reading. . . . Caputo’s best novel yet.” —The New York Times Book Review

"Philip Caputo's Sudan is a place drawn so real, dust and despair fall from the pages. . . . So beautiful, so awful, so authentic, so wonderful, so hopeless, it grieves the heart." —The Miami Herald

“Destined to be a generation-defining book.” — St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“A miracle. . . . You can hardly conceive of a more affecting reading experience.” —Houston Chronicle

"Caputo, a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter turned novelist, writes with astonishing authority, launching several complex plot lines and an enormous, vibrant cast of characters -- aid workers, soldiers, militants, mercenaries, missionaries and corrupt officials. The plot threads join in a propulsive, satisfying finish, inevitably inching demon and deity ever closer together." —Michael Ollove, The Baltimore Sun

“Philip Caputo, from Vietnam onwards, has understood the hardest truths of the modern world better than almost anybody. Acts of Faith is a stunningly unflinching novel. On the surface it is set in Africa, but in fact its true landscape is the ravaged soul of the twenty-first century. Philip Caputo is one of the few absolutely essential writers at work today.” —Robert Olen Butler

“In Acts of Faith Philip Caputo has fashioned a gripping cast of characters and placed them in a spellbinding story. You can’t get any better than that.” —Winston Groom

“Caputo’s ambitious adventure novel, set against a backdrop of the Sudanese wars, makes for a dense, riveting update on Graham Greene’s The Quiet American . . . Caputo presents a sharply observed, sweeping portrait, capturing the incestuous world of the aid groups, Sudan’s multiethnic mix, and the decayed milieu of Kenyan society.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Acts of Faith offers an image of Africa deserving comparison with Conrad, Hemingway, Peter Matthiessen, and Jan de Hartog’s forgotten near-masterpiece The Spiral Road.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Philip Caputo is a splendid, muscular story teller who possesses the crucial power to make endearing ordinary men from diverse fragilities and stubborness.” —Gloria Emerson, Los Angeles Times

“For the past twenty years, Caputo has written parables of hubris upbraided, populated by outsiders whose defects lead them into trouble as unerringly as does fate.” —David Haward Bain, New York Times Book Review

“Caputo lets no one and nothing off the hook.” —Richard Bausch, Washington Post Book World

“Caputo takes on most of the hot-button issues of our time–racism, random violence, disempowerment, the decay of social fabric, even the nature of evil itself–and more than lives to tell the tale.” —Roget L. Simon, Los Angeles Times
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Devastating. . . . Acts of Faith will be to the era of the Iraq war what Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American became to the Vietnam era. . . . Powerful.” —The New York Times

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Philip Caputo’s Acts of Faith. Set in war-torn Sudan, masterfully plotted and packed with suspense, the novel draws readers into the center of a devastating war and into the hearts and minds of the people confronting choices that challenge their most basic moral, political, and religious beliefs. It is an unflinching portrait of good intentions corrupted and idealism tarnished by the horrific reality of death and destruction.

About the Guide

Sudan is in the midst of an endless civil war between Muslim Arabs in the north and Christian and pagan blacks in the south. The fundamentalist Islamic government has imposed a blockade on humanitarian aid in the south, barring UN agencies from flying into areas controlled by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. Douglas Braithwaite, an American pilot, steps into the breach, offering the services of his small freight airline to independent aid agencies willing to break the rules. Among his clients is Quinette Hardin, a relief worker for an evangelical Christian organization that negotiates the release of blacks kidnapped by Arab slave traders. Quinette’s missions take on another dimension, however, when she falls in love with the handsome rebel leader Michael Goraende.

As the war gets hotter and the rules harsher, Douglas convinces his partners, Wesley Dare, an aging American bush pilot, and Fitzhugh Martin, the company’s multiracial administrator, that supplying humanitarian aid is not enough. Within weeks, the airline is running arms to the SPLA and earning tremendous profits. Fitzhugh, who is having an affair with Lady Diana Briggs, a descendent of British colonists known for her good works throughout Africa, persuades himself that the illegal arms are necessary to stop the deaths of countless innocents at the hands of ruthless government troops and the local Islamic warlord who supports them. Wesley sees the increased income as a means of escaping his rough-and-tumble life in Africa and starting a new life with Mary English, a fellow bush pilot. Douglas, driven by a fateful combination of altruism and arrogant self-confidence, conceives ever more dangerous schemes, certain that he can change the course of the war and gain the wealth and glory he covets.

About the Author

Philip Caputo is the author of six other works of fiction and two memoirs, including A Rumor of War, about his service in Vietnam. He worked for the Chicago Tribune for nine years and shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for his reporting on election fraud in Chicago. He divides his time between Connecticut and Arizona.

Discussion Guides

1. Acts of Faith opens with an interview with Fitzhugh Martin that takes place several years after the events recounted in the novel. How does this set the tone for the story that follows? What issues does it raise about the war in Sudan and the efforts, both military and humanitarian, to bring it to an end?

2. The meeting at Diana Briggs’s home [pp. 21–32] brings to light various reasons for helping the rebels in the south. How would you characterize the positions taken by Diana, John Barrett, Douglas Braithwaite, and Fitzhugh Martin? Which argument is objectively the most persuasive? Which one carries the most emotional impact?

3. Barrett declares, “Allah gives his stamp of approval to mass murder” and describes the war as “a continuation of the Crusades. The crescent versus the cross” [p. 25]. Is his opinion justifiable on the basis of recent historical events, or does it represent a narrow-minded Western view of Islam? Is it possible to separate religion and politics in Sudan and other places torn by conflicts among different ethnic or religious groups?

4. What first impression does Douglas Braithwaite make? What qualities does he project that lead Fitzhugh to say, “There was something about the American that made you not want to let him down” [p. 32]? Are any of Douglas’s less attractive qualities apparent at this first meeting?

5. Wesley Dare observes, “it was faith in some particular creed, sect, ideology, cause, or crusade” [p. 34] that spurred the violence he has witnessed over twenty-five years as a bush pilot. Fitzhugh talks about “the calm of an abiding conviction” of the evangelical missionaries and wishes he too had “some sort of inner resource that he could draw on” [p. 58]. How do their differing views of faith affect their feelings about Douglas and their willingness to follow his lead?

6. Do the “acts of faith” in the novel necessarily lead to negative consequences? Are there characters whose actions demonstrate that “abiding convictions” can motivate heroic behavior and express basic human decency in the face of the unspeakable?

7. What does the conversation between Tara and Douglas [pp. 70–72] reveal about the strengths and weaknesses of the American’s approach to crisis situations? What realities does Tara recognize that Douglas refuses to accept? Are there times as the story unfolds that Douglas’s direct manner and almost childlike candor bring to light moral imperatives that the other characters seem to ignore?

8. In contemplating the history of Sudan, Fitzhugh says, “What was it about this place that created visionaries of all kinds, warrior-prophets and warrior-saints, messiahs true and false? . . . Was Tara right in saying that Sudan’s distances conjure up mirages of the mind, its boundless horizons inspiring men to imagine that anything is possible? . . . And what is it about this place that even as it molds true believers out of its native clay, it also draws true believers from elsewhere?” [p. 104–105]. Is there a basic truth in this poetic, even spiritual, view of Sudan? How much of a country’s personality stems from its history and geography? Can an argument be made that nineteenth-century European imperialism in Africa was, at least in part, an expression of optimism and hope rather than simply a drive for economic and political dominance?

9. Several of the chapters focusing on Quinette are titled “Redeemer.” On one level this refers to her job of liberating slaves captured by Arab raiders. What else does it suggest about Quinette’s motivations for being in Sudan, about the character of her faith, and about her eventual willingness to cross the line between good works and illegal activities? What events bring to light the ambiguous nature of her devotion to the humanitarian and religious causes with which she is involved?

10. What role does Phyllis, the CNN reporter, play in the novel? Is she a foil for the others, especially Quinette? Does she represent the cynicism of the press? Or does she represent a viable ethical—or political—position in her own right?

11. Both Wesley [pp. 173 and 405, for example] and Fitzhugh [pp. 261 and 457] are well aware of Douglas’s faults, yet they choose to ignore them. Which man is clearer and more consistent about his reasons for staying with Knight Air? Does this give his arguments a greater moral weight?

12. Douglas and Quinette embody many of the characteristics thought of as typically American, from their enthusiastic, can-do style to their dangerous naïveté and self-righteous arrogance. How does Caputo keep them from becoming stereotypes? Do his descriptions of their backgrounds, for example, make them more sympathetic characters? What effect do the decisions they make at the end of the novel have on your feelings about each of them? Do they to some extent “redeem” themselves?

13. The chapters about Ibrahim Idris provide an unusual perspective on Islamic history and politics in Africa. What parallels are there between the aspirations of both sides in the conflict? Is Caputo evenhanded in describing the faults—as well as the ideals—of each side? Did these chapters change your understanding of the upheavals taking place in much of the Muslim world today?

14. There are three love affairs at the heart of Acts of Faith: the relationships between Quinette Hardin and Michael Goraende, Wesley Dare and Mary English, and Fitzhugh Martin and Diana Briggs. How does each relationship represent an act of faith? Which of these unlikely alliances is the most credible? Are any of the characters completely honest with themselves—and with their lovers—about the reasons for their romantic attachments? What ulterior, perhaps even unconscious, motives might you ascribe to each of them?

15. Michiko Kakutani calls Acts of Faith “a parable about American excursions abroad and the dangers of missionary zeal, a Conradian tale about idealism run amok, greed sold as paternalistic benevolence, ignorance described as compassion” (The New York Times, May 3, 2005). How accurately does the book portray the failure of humanitarian efforts around the world, both by the UN and by private agencies? Does it present a convincing portrait of the way America is perceived today?

16. Philip Caputo’s best-known book, A Rumor of War, is a memoir of his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam and a meditation on what war does to ordinary soldiers. To what extent can Acts of Faith be seen as a return to—or a continuation of—the questions explored in that book? Why has Caputo, a journalist who covered the wars in Sudan, chosen to write a novel rather than a nonfiction account of what he saw?

Suggested Readings

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart; Gil Courtemanche, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali; J. M. Coetzee, Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace; Joseph Conrad, Nostromo; Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa; Damon Galgut, The Good Doctor; Graham Greene, The Quiet American; Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts of No Nation; John le Carré, The Constant Gardener; Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost; Deborah Scroggins, Emma’s War.

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