I Get on the Bus

by Reginald McKnight. Little, Brown and Co., 1990. 296 pages, $17.95.

Strange things are happening to Evan Norris. He feels as if an icepick is being driven into his head, and he hears a high-pitched squeal as if air is leaking out. Someone has been leaving dead lizards in his room. He hears a person or creature pacing all night outside his window. He dreams of whirlpools and dust devils. Sometimes he finds himself inside other people's bodies. And sometimes he is on a bus to an unknown destination, with a boy whose scalp is scabby and who has cryptic and sinister things to say.

What's going on here? Evan may have malaria, because he hasn't been taking his quinine pills. Someone -- perhaps the old marabou with whom he lives -- may have put a spell on him. He may be turning into a demm, a soul-eater. Or he may just be going crazy. "You don't look too good, my man," someone tells him, and it's no wonder.

Evan Norris, the hero of this taut, eerie first novel, is a black American who has come from Denver to the West African country of Senegal. He has joined the Peace Corps, in part to escape Wanda Wright, his therapist turned lover, and her plans to organize, motivate, and marry him. Wanda wants to get Evan away from the group of aging white hippies he hangs out with and to instill in him a stronger sense of black identity. Evan loves Wanda, and he admires her clarity and honesty, but he is not ready to let himself be molded by her. "She, herself, is finished, complete with or without me. But I need something of my own. Life is not as she and my mother would have it. It is not a gift. Life is hard. It is stupid. One must earn it."

Evan is not the ideal Peace Corps volunteer. His French is sketchy, his Wolof nonexistent. He smokes a lot of marijuana, and exerts more energy killing flies than preparing his classes. He finds the Peace Corps too easy, too meaningless. Before long he has dropped out and gone to the capital, Dakar, where in a hallucinatory state reminiscent of The Stranger, he kills -- or believes he has killed -- a legless beggar.

Shaken, disoriented, he goes to the village of N'Gor, and after a medical crisis ends up in the home of the one-eyed M. Gueye and his beautiful daughter Aminata. M. Gueye is a marabou, a kind of Koranic scholar crossed with a voodoo priest. Evan fears Gueye, and believes that Gueye hates him, but he is fascinated by Aminata, who seems to offer him a deeper understanding of Senegal, and of his own identity, than he could find anywhere else.

Once Evan has become a drifter, he is at the mercy of people who are far more skilled at motivating, manipulating, and deceiving him than anyone he had known back home. M. Gueye with his silence and his one-eyed gaze, Aminata with her cool seductiveness, and her brother Phillipe with his scattershot monologues, hinting at secret knowledge about Evan's problems, may be weaving a web that Evan cannot yet see. "I am embarrassed," thinks Evan, watching European tourists at the beach, "as I realize that I miss being around them, white people. I miss their impassiveness, their arrogant blindness. They leave one alone."

It is so strange for a black person to leave America where one is looked through, yet feels conspicuous, then come to Africa where one is most assuredly conspicuous and feels seen through. Africans are skilled in the way of people. They do not spend hours a day watching television, hiding from even their own family members in their own rooms, or compartmentalized in their cars, blasting down highways at invisible speeds, or eating TV dinners prepared by strangers. Most Africans have nothing to do in their "leisure" hours but spend time with one another. They are more literate in the tao of humans than any people I have ever seen. This angers me, frightens me.

The chapters of I Get on the Bus are labeled, starkly, "I quit," "I find a chicken," "I write a letter," and so on. Like these headings, much of the novel's prose is laconic, first-person, present-tense. The pared-down prose perfectly expresses the desperate concentration of a man who fears he is losing his mind, and who must examine every perception to disentangle the real from the hallucinated. The other characters use language as a kind of magic, spinning strange tales that may or may not be true, and that intrigue and baffle the reader as they do Evan. In the end, Evan's life depends on which stories he chooses to believe.

Published in the Harvard Post, November 9, 1990.