Jennifer Reese
May 14, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Scribbling the Cat

Current Status
In Season
Alexandra Fuller

We gave it a B

In ”Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight,” her spectacular 2001 memoir, Alexandra Fuller wrote about growing up as a tough little white kid on a series of ramshackle farms in southeastern Africa during the 1970s. Using bright, hot, sensual prose, she described malaria, racism, poverty, and the brutal civil war between the ruling whites and disenfranchised blacks. But the book was, above all, a passionate love note to Africa, celebrating its beauty while embracing its complications. That same palpable, almost physical love saturates Scribbling the Cat, her troubled nonfiction portrait of the man she calls K, a white veteran of the Rhodesian civil war of the ’70s.

Fuller is spending Christmas with her parents in Zambia when K — tattooed, middle-aged, barefoot, and ”more than ordinarily beautiful” — drops by one morning to see ”a white face…. Any white face will do.” Later, when Fuller — her husband and two children are back in Wyoming — mentions to her father that she might repay K’s visit, he replies, ”Curiosity scribbled the cat.”

”Scribbled,” as one might guess, means ”killed” in the local patois, but Fuller doesn’t listen. Returning to Africa over a year later, she heads off with K on a road trip through the war zones he traversed as a soldier. ”I had thought that if I walked where he had walked, if I drank from the same septic sludge of water, if I ate nothing all day and smoked a pack of bitter cigarettes,” Fuller writes, ”then I’d understand the man better.”

Her powerful, earthy descriptions of their sweltering and frequently hellish drive make up the best part of the narrative. K, by turns angry, sentimental, and sorrowful, tells wrenching tales of wartime scribbling and torture, yet only occasionally emerges as a believable, mortal man. Instead, filtered through Fuller’s imagination, he is a ”cathedral,” a ”dominant lion,” an ”ancient fortress,” and ”a living, walking, African Vatican City.” Is Fuller writing about K or her tragic idea of K?

He becomes human — and truly interesting — only toward the end of their journey, when he explodes all her myths. While Fuller has been chasing a story, K has been nursing a barely concealed crush, and he abruptly turns on Fuller with the fury of a would-be lover: ”You play with men. You know that? You play with men and you play with their feelings.” Fuller never really answers the accusation, but based on the evidence presented here, K has a point. There was clearly a lot more personal drama on their road trip than she wants to reveal. The omission leaves a heart-size hole in this intriguing, gorgeous, but flawed book.

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