Tony D’Souza’s Whiteman, published in 2006, was widely praised for its treatment of, in Norman Rush’s words, “the paradoxes of Western aid-giving.” The book, D’Souza’s first, recounted the adventures and foibles of a white American man, Jack Diaz, in Ivory Coast during its recent civil war. His NGO’s money dries up, so Diaz doesn’t dig any of the wells he thought he would. Instead, he passes the days hunting the flapping francolin bird, tooling around on a mobylette, and, like so many before him, trying to show his “red stick” to Ivorian women. Self-critical musings like “All the things I had been doing suddenly seemed as ridiculous as they really were” are followed by frustration that “the forest, the people, they would never reveal themselves to me”—as if the forest were there to take off its leaves. Some of the writing is beautiful, but in the end, one has to ask: Did another story of a white man’s existential crisis in Africa need to be told?
D’Souza’s second novel, The Konkans, again deals with an American abroad, picking up when Denise Klein, an aid worker, comes home. As a child, Denise fled her abusive mother to live with a distant aunt, then found happiness as a Peace Corps volunteer in the mid-’60s. She is stationed in Chikmagalur, an Indian town of Konkans, who, following their Portuguese colonizers, practice Catholicism. In Chikmagalur, she meets Lawrence, the first son of the upper-class D’Sai clan. They don’t exactly fall in love. Denise thinks she’s marrying all of India; Lawrence thinks he’s escaping it. What they discover is that, in Lawrence’s words, “neither one of us will ever be real Indians.” All they have in common is the ability to disappoint each other. Lawrence’s father, Santan, himself a first son, collaborated with the British as a police commissioner in the state of Karnataka; Lawrence spends his life desperately seeking acceptance as a corporate insurance manager in the suburbs of Chicago. He keeps his carved ivory knife in a desk drawer and passes his nights in his basement prison drinking scotch and staring at a painting of a lone donkey rider. Against his deepest wishes, Denise sponsors his brothers, Sam and Les, to follow him to Chicago. Les disappears into the navy and out of the drama; Sam stays in Chicago, and in time, Denise pines for India in his arms.
The Konkans is narrated by Denise and Lawrence’s first son, Francisco, named for Saint Francis Xavier, who, according to Konkan lore and contrary to history, planted his staff next to his great friend Vasco da Gama’s sword on the Indian shore. The novel marks time in the suburban cul-de-sacs of Illinois and roars to life in the bustling, rustling Chikmagalur. There’s the chapter about Denise’s years in the Peace Corps and about her fellow volunteer who dressed in his Eagle Scout uniform, badges and all. There’s the sweetmeats shop that Sam runs for two years in Chikmagalur, the de facto social club of Konkan second and third sons. There’s Sam’s black girlfriend, Jacqueline, whom he throws over for a Konkan bride. (“It’s true that I didn’t know what kind of Indian you were,” she tells him. “But what hurts me most is to know what kind of man.”) The novel fills up with lonely hearts for whom life is a waiting room, their eyes trained as through a glass, darkly, on the one thing they believe will give them happiness.
Denise, like Diaz, doesn’t have thoughts much deeper than you’d expect from a student still high on the tastes and smells of a semester abroad. When she returned, she “carried India to America in her in a way that began to harden her heart.” Also in a way that colonized her heart—D’Souza gives her a cultural lobotomy, making her capable of talking only about India. (It’s hard to believe you would want an affair with a woman whose sole topic of conversation is how much she loves your country, but any sense Sam has of himself as a fetish object remains unexplored.) In D’Souza’s novels about the binding ties of blood and soil, Americans are like orphans with no pasts. They float untethered and rudderless, buoyed by all things foreign.
As the novel progresses, though, Lawrence comes alive. Although he often only mailed a check home without a letter, Lawrence insists to his son that “your grandfather was a great man.” And adds: “You must be greater still.” (When the dying Santan is spread out on his bed in Chikmagalur, Francisco hauntingly imagines his grandfather as “a great bird in his bones.”) Lawrence faces American versions of the tests his father faced. One was despised by the neighborhood Hindus; one’s suburban fortress is splattered with tomatoes. One hunted sandalwood poachers for the British; one is used by white managers to fire employees of color. History bursts out from each of Lawrence’s choices. You may not like this man, but you know him.
When Diaz in Whiteman asks the witch doctor for medicine to participate in a group ritual, he’s told that “there are things we must keep for ourselves if we are to go on in this world as a people.” We don’t get to choose the people we are born to, the names we are given, the places we are from. And though we Americans like to believe that we can become whoever we want to be, that reinvention is our birthright, no matter what we learn or where we move, we always lug along extra suitcases full of all those hand-me-downs. Like Whiteman, The Konkans tests those inheritances. It is fundamentally a story about what it means to belong. But the question lurking like trouble everywhere is scarier than the country-club rejection letters that keep piling up. That question is, What if their club did have you as a member? Would you still want to belong?
Christine Smallwood is associate literary editor at The Nation.