Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, arguably the most influential and accomplished critic regularly writing book reviews in U.S. mainstream media, is forecasting a great future for Philip Caputo's new novel.  --  "Acts of Faith will be to the era of the Iraq war," she writes, "what Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American became to the Vietnam era: a parable about American excursions abroad and the dangers of missionary zeal, a Conradian tale about idealism run amok, capitalistic greed sold as paternalistic benevolence, ignorance disguised as compassion."[1]  --  She finds the characters much more interesting than those that appear in earlier novels by Caputo, and as for the plot, it's a "story that possesses all the suspense and momentum of a Hollywood thriller and all the gravitas of a 19th-century novel."  --  Regis Behe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review conducted a phone interview with Caputo that revealed how much the novel is based on Caputo's firsthand experience.[2]  --  Of the Sudan, Caputo says:  "There's just an irreconcilable difference between Arab Sudan and Southern Sudan, which is black and primarily Christian or animist. The country was invented by the British, like an awful lot of the countries in Africa were invented by the colonial powers.  It's very difficult to merge these two cultures into one, probably impossible." ...



Books of the Times

Acts of Faith

By Michiko Kakutani

New York Times
May 3, 2005
Page B01


[PHOTO CAPTION: Philip Caputo]

Philip Caputo's devastating new novel, 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: a parable about American excursions abroad and the dangers of missionary zeal, a Conradian tale about idealism run amok, capitalistic greed sold as paternalistic benevolence, ignorance disguised as compassion.

The novel reads like a combination of Robert Stone (without the drugs), V. S. Naipaul (without the snobbery) and Joan Didion (without the staccato prose) -- a modern day Nostromo that reverberates with echoes from today's headlines.

Set largely in the 1990's at the height of Sudan's civil war, Acts of Faith draws upon Mr. Caputo's firsthand knowledge of war (documented in his ferociously observed Vietnam memoir A Rumor of War) and firsthand reportorial experience of Africa to tell the fictional story of two Americans who have come to Sudan to create new lives for themselves. Their avowed mission is to bring aid to the starving rebels (opposed to the hard-line Islamic government in Khartoum) but their real agenda is more personal and self serving.

Douglas Braithwaite, a charming American aviator who claims he was an Air Force fighter pilot in the Persian Gulf War, is out to vanquish family ghosts by founding a lucrative aviation aid business, flying relief shipments into dangerous "no-go" areas -- a business he believes will serve both his entrepreneurial ambitions and his altruistic beliefs. Quinette Hardin, a young evangelical Christian who works for a human rights group that buys back slaves captured by Arab raiders, sees herself as doing God's work and regards that work as a way to distinguish herself from the people she grew up with in Iowa; it's a way to play the role of heroine in an action-adventure drama of her own writing.

Both are true believers, blessed or cursed with absolute faith in the rightness of their motives. As Fitzhugh Martin -- one of Douglas's business associates and the Marlow character in this novel -- tells it, Quinette and Douglas were alike in many ways: "so American in their narcissism, in their self-righteousness, in their blindness to their inner natures, in their impulse to remake the world and reinvent themselves, never realizing that the world wishes to remain as it is and that oneself is not as malleable as one likes to think." Both Americans glibly gloss over past mistakes in favor of focusing on the radiant future, and they rationalize whatever suspect means they might employ by invoking their lofty goals: "We're doing what we have to do," says Douglas, "so we can keep doing what we came here to do."

Among the people whose lives will be forever altered by Douglas and Quinette's dreams are a group of other foreigners -- a Graham Greenesque collection of expatriates, misfits and renegades, who for one reason or another have ended up in the dusty wastelands of eastern Africa. There's Wesley Dare, an American bush pilot, who becomes Douglas's business partner and who falls in love with another pilot, Mary English. There's Lady Diana Briggs, a wealthy Anglo-Kenyan philanthropist, who begins a passionate affair with the considerably younger Fitzhugh Martin. And there's Diana's friend Tara Whitcomb, a Beryl Markham-like aviator, who runs the chief competitor to Douglas's new airline.

These characters are all splendidly drawn, as full of contradictions, idiosyncrasies and hidden drives as people we know in real life -- and a far cry from the sometimes stereotyped creations found in Mr. Caputo's earlier novels. The one exception is Douglas, who remains -- (much like Pyle, the hero of The Quiet American) -- more metaphor than man, a symbol of American naïveté and hubris, a synthetic creature who often seems as if he'd been made up from bits and pieces of fictional and real people from Jay Gatsby to George W. Bush to Oliver North, hastily patched together and then dressed up with some perfunctorily imagined quirks.

Although the reader can feel Mr. Caputo straining in the opening portions of the book to set up his narrative chessboard, even these pages are enlivened by his keenly observed descriptions of the Sudanese landscape and his evocation of this place where, he writes, any goal -- be it to end a famine, bring peace or heal the sick -- "was farther away than it appeared, seemingly within one's grasp but always beyond it."

As the book progresses, all the plot's gears slowly click into place, resulting in a story that possesses all the suspense and momentum of a Hollywood thriller and all the gravitas of a 19th-century novel. Cutting back and forth between the adventures of Douglas and Quinette, Mr. Caputo creates two dovetailing story lines that will come smashing together with a terrible and violent inevitability. Indeed, Mr. Caputo writes with such authority that he's able to invest events that might seem improbable in another novelist's hands with an uncommon degree of verisimilitude, delineating not only the viewpoints of his Western visitors, but also those of the Sudanese rebels and their Islamic opponents with equally sure-handed drama and psychological ballast.

While Quinette marries a leader of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army and becomes an ardent supporter of their armed revolt against the Islamist government in Khartoum, Douglas broadens the mission of his new airline -- from flying in food and medical supplies to smuggling illicit arms from Uganda. "Humanitarian aid," he reasons, "was no longer the solution to humanitarian problems. Anti-aircraft guns and shoulder-fired missiles would transform the Nubans from victims into a people in full command of their destiny."

Douglas forges an alliance with a shady Kenyan tycoon and directs Fitzhugh to make a series of increasingly shady deals in an effort to build up their business. His actions, along with those of Quinette, will draw many of their friends and associates into a widening sinkhole from which few will escape intact, and they will also have ominous consequences for the desperate Sudanese people they purport to help.

The powerful conclusion to this powerful novel not only ratifies one character's observation that "Sudan was a land of illusions," but also underscores the degree to which those illusions often reside in the absolutism of individuals' political and moral convictions.



By Regis Behe

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
April 30, 2005


When Philip Caputo was in Sudan a few years ago, he met a woman who had gone on a most taxing journey.

For four days she had walked through bush country, carrying on her back her young child sick with malaria, to the only hospital in a 600-square-mile area.

A short time later on his way back to the United States, Caputo was browsing through a magazine rack at London's Heathrow Airport when he spied a Time magazine. On the cover was a blond, fair-skinned American kid stuffing cake into his mouth.

The headline read: "Are We Too Fat?"

"I was not just repelled by that; I was outraged," he says during a phone interview. "I kind of saw that as, I think, an African might see that. It was something that was beyond my comprehension: I, not as Phil Caputo, but I as this imaginary African who struggles every day to get enough to eat and get his family enough to eat. To see this cover with this overweight kid with his mouth smeared with cake frosting, it was just appalling."

In Acts of Faith, Caputo further delineates the differences between the West and the African continent, differences he terms akin to being "smacked in the face." Epic in scope, the novel relates the stories of relief efforts in the Sudan, using a cast of renegade pilots, missionaries, aid workers and two charismatic but opposing Sudanese leaders.

All are convinced their actions are for the greater good. But, Caputo says, "faith, whether it's a belief in a sect or a religion or an ideology, under circumstances like those in Sudan, sometimes curdle into fanatacism."

Caputo served with the Marines in Vietnam before beginning a career as a journalist with the Chicago Tribune. In 1972, he won a Pulitzer Prize for work on election fraud in Chicago, then became a foreign correspondent, reporting from hotspots including Beirut and Moscow. Caputo is the author of the Vietnam memoir A Rumor of War, and the novels Horn of Africa and The Voyage.

Part of Caputo's concern as a writer is "how history touches ordinary lives." That aspect is embodied in Quinnette Hardin, a young woman from rural Iowa who almost accidentally becomes part of a missionary program that raises money to buy slaves from their captors in Sudan.

"I think that presenting ordinary people in these extraordinary circumstances as just a better way to convey what I'm trying to say," Caputo says, "than if everyone were a heroic, bold or larger-than-life character. After all, when you think about it, all of those aid workers I met over there, and even some of the pilots, came from ordinary backgrounds in Europe and America and then found themselves in these extraordinary circumstances and were sometimes called upon to do extraordinary things."

In Acts of Faith, various interests come together to provide aid to ethnic Nubans who live in a mountainous section of Sudan besieged by Arab Muslims forces. A former Kenyan soccer star, Fitzhugh Martin, is employed with Knight Air, the brainchild of a mercurial American pilot, Douglas Braithwaite. They enlist another American, the aptly named Wesley Dare, to fly aid to the Nubans, but soon are tempted by another lucrative prospect: Flying illegal arms shipments to the soldiers of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army.

Caputo encountered pilots who were running guns to Sudan, hiding the shipments by filling out false flight plans. One Kenyan involved rationalized the shipments by saying he hoped that if enough arms were shipped to the Liberation Army, they could prevail against the Sudanese government -- even as the arms sometimes would fall into the hands of bandits or be used to fight tribal conflicts.

Others didn't bother to rationalize.

"They did it for any number of reasons," Caputo says. "Partly, it was for the money, although quite often they weren't getting paid by the people they were running guns for. One female pilot who was not involved said she thought they were just like small boys. They loved the danger and they loved getting away with something. They were doing it for the thrill of it."

Throughout Acts of Faith, Caputo highlights the differences between cultures. There are popular theories about globalization and how communications and the Internet bring disparate societies together, but the author thinks the McDonald's-ization of the world is not quite complete.

"I think that globalization creates a superficial homogenization," Caputo says. "It's been my observation that sometimes the differences among the human races, the ethnicities and religions, is getting wider than narrower."

This is illustrated in Acts of Faith when Fitzhugh Martin tries to explain to a journalist that it's foolish and dangerous to separate good and evil in Africa.

"One thing that has fascinated me from the time I was in Vietnam has been moral ambiguities," Caputo says. "How good can turn into evil or sometimes how good can arise out of evil, or evil out of good. . . . I think in our far more developed culture in the West -- not just in America, but the West in general with its Christian underpinnings -- there is more of a sense that over here is Satan, over here is Michael the Archangel. It's oversimplified.

"And I hesitate to say all Africans, but certainly some Africans, don't quite see it that way. That good and evil are more Janus-faced, twins with opposite faces, intertwined."


Philip Caputo first visited Sudan in 1975, during a rare period of peace in the East African nation. When he returned 25 years later, rebel forces from the south of the country were engaged with government forces in a desperate civil war.

Recently, just before the publication of Acts of Faith, a novel set in Sudan, a cease-fire was announced between the warring factions. [NOTE: Key players in this dramatic diplomatic development were in Tacoma in in early January. --F.L.] But Caputo thinks the chances of it lasting are slim.

"There's just an irreconcilable difference between Arab Sudan and Southern Sudan, which is black and primarily Christian or animist," he says. "The country was invented by the British, like an awful lot of the countries in Africa were invented by the colonial powers. It's very difficult to merge these two cultures into one, probably impossible."

Caputo says the simplistic solution is to halve the country into two republics. But because most of Sudan's oil reserves and agricultural resources are in the south, such a division is unlikely.

"Without the south, Northern Sudan would become an impoverished desert kingdom," he says.


Philip Caputo's Acts of Faith is superficially an old-fashioned, sprawling yarn of a novel, filled with colorful characters, unlikely lovers and pilots flying fearlessy into desperate situations. But at its heart, the book explores the moral ambiguities that plague a group of relief workers who walk an ethical tightrope to justify actions that alternately benefit and imperil their benefactors.

Caputo's pace is initially leisurely, but as the story unfolds it becomes the rare novel that simultaneously entertains and provokes debate.

-- Regis Behe

Regis Behe can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or (412)320-7990.