By Steven Jay Griffel
Queens, NY, USA
Never again will I think of risk assessment only in terms of business. Henceforth, I intend to use the technique to help assess all my important wants and needs. It might even prove useful to me in deciding matters of art and love.
In Thomas H. Cook's profound novel A Dancer in the Dust, idealistic aid-worker Ray Campbell returns home from the African nation of Lubanda, doubtful of the benefits of Western largesse and of ever loving again. He retreats awhile, hunkers down, takes stock, reevaluates himself. When he emerges, scarred but functional, it is in the new guise of risk-management consultant.
At first, this seems like a complete reversal from the career path that took the younger Ray Campbell to Africa as a professional do-gooder. That trip promised soul-feeding rewards—and a year of living dangerously. Having left his innocence abroad, the older Campbell is chastened but not completely changed. Mainly, he has learned to look before leaping. As a risk manager, Campbell specializes in identifying Danger, drawing the lurking bogeyman out of the dark and assessing its threat by applying a personal algorithm of calculated costs and measurements.
Though caution may be Campbell's new watchword, he is not action averse. Faced with circumstances that remind him of his earlier African failures, he persuades himself of the reasonableness of returning to Lubanda. But this decision is fraught with murderous risk: He returns to investigate the murder of an African friend, to protect the life of the new Lubandan president, and to learn about the death of the only women he has ever loved.
I interviewed Thomas H. Cook several months before A Dancer in the Dust was released.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: What about your own life? Did you have a year of living dangerously? Or have you written this book partly out of a regret for not having pursued that exotic experience?
THOMAS H. COOK: I suppose it depends on what you mean by "dangerously." My wife and I moved to Madrid when our daughter was twelve years old. We stayed there for fourteen months. We were young, we had no insurance, and for the next two summers we used Madrid as our base while driving all though Central and Western Europe. We later went to Tangiers, which I thought quite dangerous at the time, though it probably wasn't. But if by "dangerously" you mean embracing a continuing situation fraught with danger, I did that for only six months, during which I manned the "suicide shift" (midnight until eight in the morning) at a slum hotel in Brooklyn. So, I think I can truthfully say that I did have half a year of living dangerously, but never a full year.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: There is not a lot of backstory to explain what inspired Ray Campbell to become an aid worker. Is there such a thing as pure altruism? Or is it always alloyed with personal desires and demons?
THOMAS H. COOK: I felt no need to elaborate on Ray's need to do good in the world. As a young man, he would have heard plenty of tales from the Peace Corps, and if not those stories, then certainly the ones about young people going to the South to man voter registration drives and the like. The notion of doing good, particularly in foreign climes, is probably romantic enough to inspire a great many people whose back stories are rather dull.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: A Dancer in the Dust has strong elements of the mystery and thriller, but its first-person protagonist is not a classic gumshoe. Ray Campbell is not a detective or a private eye. He's not a newspaper reporter or even a claims investigator. He's a risk manager. How did it occur to you that such a profession would make for an effective narrator of a literary thriller?
THOMAS H. COOK: Years ago, while writing Mortal Memory (which was, by the way, written during my year in Madrid), I discovered that I didn't enjoy writing mysteries that involved private detectives or cops. I had already found most standard police procedurals or private-eye novels quite boring, with endings that were almost always unsatisfying. When I wrote such books, and I did, I also found my own endings unsatisfactory. I knew that I wanted to write books that had crimes in them, but not books in which the solving of the crime was paramount. For that reason, I began writing crime novels without cops or private detectives as lead characters. Instead, it would be an architect (Mortal Memory) or a small-town doctor (Breakheart Hill) or a photographer (The City When It Rains). This allowed the story to unfold in ways far different from the usual lock-step plot movements demanded by police procedurals and standard private-eye novels.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Your rendering of Lubanda is a spot-on representation of a post-colonial, newly independent African nation dependent on Western aid. Is this a sort of consensus image, or did you have a particular African history in mind?
THOMAS H. COOK: Lubanda is wholly imagined. I had never heard of any place in Africa by that name, nor did I have any particular country in mind when I wrote A Dancer in the Dust. Like all the characters and NGOs in the book, Lubanda is pure fiction. Needless to say, my portrait of Lubanda was drawn from many sources, and there are fictional elements within that portrait that have events in African history as their inspiration, but not their source. However, when the characters comment upon historic events outside Lubanda, I tried to be true to those events. That said, there was never (to my knowledge) a "Tumasi Road Incident" anywhere in Africa, so the central event of the novel, like its characters and setting, is purely fictional.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: What makes your Lubanda so convincing is all the apparent verisimilitude: the dialects, customs, flora and fauna, crops and foodstuffs, etc. How much of this is real and how much is fictionalized?
THOMAS H. COOK: I would make what is purely a guess and say that about eighty percent of it is real. When I quote an African proverb, for example, it is a genuine reference to a real proverb whose origin is African. I studied African grain crops in order to speak with some authority about teff because Martine needed to know enough about this grain to defend her growing of it. I did the same with coffee when it is grown in arid locations, such as "Lubanda." As I recall, however, a couple of the African words are fictional. The rest are actual words from various African languages and dialects. In terms of foodstuff, I can tell you that I have actually eaten the cassava paste that is so prevalent as a staple food in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You handle time and place in an interesting way in this novel. Although there are continual shifts in setting, the focus always recurs to the story of Martine and Lubanda. It's as if the story, first told in relatively vague terms, like a diffusely pixelated photo, continues to grow in clarity as the plot is resolved. Your thoughts?
THOMAS H. COOK: I think your description of the plot working like a "diffusely pixelated photo" is very accurate indeed. As a matter of fact, I have often thought that my books work like images under a microscope which become more and more clear as you turn the dial until, at last, everything comes into focus.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Ray Campbell appears to be an excellent risk assessor, yet he has blind spots when it comes to his relationship with Martine. Do we file this observation under "Do as I say, not as I do"?
THOMAS H. COOK: I think the key to answering this question is by saying that there are two Ray Campbells, the young man who came to Lubanda and fell in love with Martine Aubert, and the older, wiser man who is now reliving those earlier years. In fact, Ray becomes a risk assessor because the one great risk he took ended so disastrously. When we meet him he is a man made cautious by his own prior recklessness. When we leave him he is a man who has taken a truly great risk regarding not only his own life, but the future of Lubanda.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Campbell's twenty-year journey back to Lubanda reminds me of Odysseus's epic resolve to return to Ithaca and his wife Penelope. In what ways do you see Campbell as a flawed hero?
THOMAS H. COOK: Ray Campbell, like all of us, is very flawed, but the book is less about his flaws than the flaws inherent in any human activity. Because we simply cannot know the final consequence of anything we do, we are forced to live lives characterized by more risk than any risk assessor could possibly imagine. For that reason we always act blindly. When I think of my personal view of life as it is suggested by my books, I continually return to a line of Henry James' which I will paraphrase: "We live in the dark. We do what we can." This is certainly true with regard to what Ray did in Lubanda as a young man and what he later does in Lubanda as a much older one.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: There is much written in this novel about risk assessment and implied freewill, but for some characters there is also a sense of destiny. How do you reconcile the co-existence of these ideas?
THOMAS H. COOK: They coexist because each is a human construct that has absolutely no reality outside the human mind. Bees don't think about destiny, and they certainly don't mull over the possibility of free will. Only humans spend time considering such notions. Ray's risk assessment is an effort merely to present to his clients the many faces of the unexpected, the odd corner around which it may lurk, and the consequences that may accrue to being insufficiently aware of it. I doubt that he believes in destiny, though I have little doubt that his mind is plagued by the darkest imaginable ironies, the most tragic of which is presented in the final scene of the novel.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: The theme of sin and atonement runs throughout the novel. Do you see human experience as an embattled journey towards salvation?
THOMAS H. COOK: I think human life is a long stumbling walk toward oblivion during which some people make a great effort to divine what the right thing is while others feel quite certain that they already know, the latter being the far more dangerous. My reading of history has taught me that no one was ever burned alive by a doubter, so when I think of "salvation" I like to think of it as having occurred in the quiet precincts of a single heart, secret and hidden from view, and valued primarily as a specie of redemption, a whispered hope rather than a proclamation, and arrived at, as you say, by answering the call of atonement. That is precisely the call that Ray hears and heeds in the book, so you are quite right that it runs through the novel.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: ". . . the crimes of goodness go largely unrecorded." Care to elaborate, beyond the scope of the novel?
THOMAS H. COOK: Any of us could elaborate endlessly on that remark of Martine's. We need hardly look any further than the latest news broadcast to see how much evil is brought into the world by people convinced that they are doing good. This problem becomes compounded, as it does in A Dancer in the Dust, when the personal interests of people (everything from their own vision of themselves to the money they make) fuse with their sense of benevolent mission. Such a fusion really gums up the moral works, and consequently makes any truly enlightened and disinterested reform far less likely.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Are you already at work on your next novel? Care to share a quick preview?
THOMAS H. COOK: I am very much at work on it, but the nature of the novel will doubtless change so much between now and when it reaches print that it would be futile to discuss it. I write in a very fluid way, with no outline ever, and so I simply can never say how a book, once begun, will end up. Believe me, I wish I could. It would make my life far less anxious.