Nebraska Center for Writers

Chimney Rock Profile of
Richard Dooling




Talking to Richard Dooling about doctors, lawyers, and "looking-around men" in Sierra Leone, West Africa...

Does fiction imitate reality or does reality mock fiction? Rick Dooling had to ponder that question just after he turned in the manuscript for his new novel, White Man's Grave, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in June 1994. In White Man's Grave, Boone Westfall ventures into the heart of Sierra Leone, West Africa, after receiving word that his childhood friend--Michael Killigan--now a Peace Corps volunteer there, has disappeared. Has he been kidnaped by rebels in the area? Is he still alive? To find out, Boone gets caught up in the communal life of a primitive village, one pervaded by a complex belief in witches, fetishes, bush devils, swears and counterswears. Dooling himself had spent seven months in just such a village, visiting his real-life friend. Then, shortly after he completed White Man's Grave, he received a call from his friend's mother telling him that "Mike has disappeared from his village. We think he may have been abducted by Liberian rebels." It was almost as if Dooling had written the script for him!

"I started to think I might have actually caused it to happen," says Dooling with a laugh. In his novel, one of the characters is accused of being a witch. Would the real village in Sierra Leone have suspected the author of witchcraft? Perhaps. "They might have accused me of causing Mike's disappearance by praying over that fetish I call a novel," he quips. "Anyone who talks about witchcraft--or, in this case, writes about it--is suspect." Luckily, Dooling's friend was released unharmed several weeks later.

"White Man's Grave is an outrageously funny satire about doctors, lawyers, insurance salesmen, and primitive magic," says John Glusman, Dooling's editor at FSG. These are worlds that Dooling knows a lot about. He is an ex-attorney and a former registered respiratory therapist who cared for critically ill patients in intensive care units. In fact, his first novel, Critical Care, took aim at high-tech health care in ICUs, the dark, gallows-style humor that often pervades there, and the inhuman burdens often placed on hospital staff.

In Dooling's Sierra Leone--often called "the white man's grave" because of the diversity there of disease-carrying microbes and parasites that can attack the immune system--doctors, clad in antiseptic whites are conspicuously absent. Instead, there are "looking-around men." Are "looking-around men" witch doctors? Not exactly. "They're part private investigators, part clairvoyants, part psychiatrist, and, probably, part con-men," says Dooling. In his book, a "looking-around man" and a "witch-finder" are called in by villagers when witchcraft and other evil are suspected. Today, Dooling keeps a Sierra Leonean batik painting of a "looking-around man" on his office wall.

Other Sierra Leonean customs sometimes have more dire consequences. White Man's Grave describes, in one scene, a ritual female circumcision. In another scene the author describes something he himself witnessed: an infant is force-fed cassava pap until his belly is hard, a widespread practice which sometimes ends in babies choking to death. But, as strange as some of these things may seem, Dooling reminds us that such traditions have existed for thousands of years. Interfering with them poses a moral dilemma that Dooling's characters must face.

A contrasting part of the novel is set in Indianapolis, where the missing volunteer's father, Randall Killigan, is a ruthless bankruptcy lawyer. He receives a horrible African fetish in the mail, and thereafter, strange things begin to happen....Has he been invaded by a vengeful witch's evil spirit? Or was he the perfect host-body for evil, to begin with? Do bad medicine and magic really exist? "One of the themes of White Man's Grave." says Dooling, "is that whether one believes in African witchcraft, American medicine, or the bankruptcy code, the material world often conforms itself to those beliefs and not vice versa."

Dooling will occasionally still write legal briefs for clients or other lawyers on a freelance basis but he doesn't miss being a full-time lawyer. "Litigation is intellectual warfare. It is often savage and malicious," says Dooling. "You do your best to 'harm' the other side in much the same way an African villager tries to harm an enemy using bad medicine or witchcraft. The metaphors litigators use are often warlike and violent: 'I'm going wipe the floor with them, bloody their noses, give the witness a coronary on the stand, etc."

Does he plan to return to Sierra Leone at some point? He has no plans to, although his friend, who married a Sierra Leonean woman and is presently living in Buffalo, New York, wants to return with his wife and children. "He's waiting now for a new Red Cross assignment which will allow him to go back to Africa and remain for at least several years." He adds, "Sierra Leone is a beautiful place. Unfortunately, everyone there has given up on government." When Boone Westfall catches up with his buddy in the book, he finds that he is in the hands of some dangerous teenaged Sierra Leonean rebels. "Liberia and Sierra Leone are being run by fourteen-year-olds with machine guns," says Dooling. "But you can see why that's happened. They watched their fathers die in the diamond mines and their farms get flooded, while corrupt government ministers smuggle the country's wealth across porous borders."--Farrar, Straus, & Giroux

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