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Originally published July 31, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 31, 2007 at 2:41 AM

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Book review

Peter Chilson's Peace Corps past lends to striking tales of Africa

Sometimes it feels as though the smartest thing you could do, if...

Seattle Times book critic

Author appearance

Peter Chilson

The author of "Disturbance-Loving Species" will read at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

"Disturbance-Loving Species"

by Peter Chilson

Mariner, 229 pp., $13.95

Sometimes it feels as though the smartest thing you could do, if you wanted to be a fiction writer, would be to join the Peace Corps. From veteran writer Paul Theroux to newcomer Tony D'Souza, former Corps members have translated their experiences overseas into striking tales addressing the dangers, delusions and rewards of trying to be a do-gooder in an unfamiliar culture thousands of miles from home.

Now Peter Chilson, an associate professor of English at Washington State University, enters the fray with "Disturbance-Loving Species," a book of one novella and four short stories. Chilson was a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger in the mid-1980s, and his obsession is the landscape of the Sahel, the semi-arid margin of land bordering the southern Sahara in western Africa.

As he notes in "Freelancing," one of the book's best stories, "The Sahelian grasslands had turned to sand. The fresh rains meant little after twenty years of unwavering drought. The land had crashed."

That environmental "crash" has led to starvation, ethnic strife, population displacement and tremendous political instability in the region. These are the subjects of Chilson's tales, along with one other: the dilemmas of being a Westerner wanting to help in a place that prides itself on its culture, yet functions so badly.

"Freelancing" is narrated by a longtime journalist working frequently in Africa who keeps crossing paths and sometimes collaborating with a Scottish newspaper photographer named Richard Ward. Ward has no compunctions about staging his scenes of African despair. "I don't want smiles," he says. "Grim, I want grim."

The unnamed narrator says he would like to think that journalists "are not voyeurs or mere distributors of the pornography of poverty and decay, of cultural destruction." But Ward puts that wishful thinking to a test — and the tale unfolds to become a study of how any eyewitness to brutality becomes, on some level, complicit to that brutality.

"Toumani Ogun" is an even better story. Its American narrator, a former aid worker in the Sahel, meets a specter from his past when he sees an African ex-army major running a gas station in his Portland neighborhood. The American, who has brought Africa back with him in ways that hardly let him sleep or maintain civil relations with anyone, immediately wants revenge for the colleague the army major casually ordered killed.

The images of that killing clearly aren't ever going to fade for Chilson's narrator: "A rifle fired from a few meters away is not at all loud. The shots sound more like soft, sharp claps — pa, pop — as if the gun is saying, 'Pardon me, you're dead.' Odd as well is the way a man looks when he's been shot in the chest ... ."

The ensuing tale of stalking and eventually confronting a seemingly unrepentant enemy is perfectly calibrated.

The book's other two stories and one novella aren't quite as accomplished. Of the stories, "American Food" offers a lighter mood, with its account of an African scientist in eastern Oregon having to jump through some unusual hoops in order to dine on his favorite fare: goat head. The book's title story, about an American aid worker in Mali, who dies thanks to "a medical mistake," feels abrupt in its transitions and insufficiently complex to have real power.

The novella, "Tea With Soldiers," is the most ambitious effort here — but feels too raw for its own good. David Carter, the protagonist, is a high-school teacher in Niamey, Niger's capital, at a time of repressive military dictatorship. When one of his colleagues is whisked off by soldiers at an army checkpoint, Carter reacts with the best of clumsy intentions, endangering those around him more than he's helping them.

These incidents are presented in a bald, almost workmanlike prose. This works to an extent, with some passages being plain and abrasive enough to match the ugly sights, sounds and smells Chilson is depicting. In other passages, the points of the story simply seem overstated.

The collection won the 2006 Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize for fiction. Chilson is also the author of a memoir, "Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa."

Michael Upchurch: 206-464-8793 or mupchurch@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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