I GET ON THE BUS

By Reginald McKnight

Little, Brown. 296 pp. $17.95

DAKAR, SENEGAL. Evan Norris gets on a bus. He's thirtyish, African-American, with three months behind him as a Peace Corps volunteer. Something's not right. A boy with peppercorn hair brings out such anger within him that Evan wants to throttle him. The bus is full of sweaty passengers. Evan is squeezed into a corner near a rear window, feeling claustrophobic. A policeman on the bus appears hostile. Then, as Evan becomes sick, he describes his feelings:

"A thick bile gushes into my mouth. It is so bitter my neck muscles draw taut. My breathing stiffens. I look about myself, at all these faces that reveal nothing but what I put there, tell no stories, tell no lies, exhibit neither fear nor boredom. Nonfaces. Blaring African dress, cheap black-market watches, jewelry of pure gold, jutting shoulders and breasts, hips and knees, elbows, chins, skulls.

"I am not here. I am missing.

"I would scream, but I have no language for screaming. There is too much to see. I am blind. I am deaf. I cannot breathe. I cannot breathe. I cannot breathe. My head hurts.

"The bus stops. I get off. I walk.

"How odd that I can walk."

Cultural shock? Illness? Hallucination? Mental instability? Perhaps, or a combination of all of these, though what becomes absolutely certain by the end of this often spellbinding narrative is that Evan Norris has brought many of his problems with him, that he was a confused and angry young man before he arrived in Africa. He's been a kind of drifter much of his adult life, spoiled by his upper-middle-class background, angry as well as alienated from his family and his girlfriend (who is also his shrink). The white world has often held him in thrall, channelling his anger against his blackness.

As the story continues -- with the ubiquitous journey motif of riding a bus -- Evan's hostilities increase. A legless beggar so enrages him that Evan attacks him with a stone, as if he were little more than a cockroach. In a malarial stupor, Evan is taken in by Aminata, a student at Georgetown University and the daughter of a village marabou, who attempts to cure him of his illness. Yet soon Evan believes that Aminata's father is out to harm instead of help him. It isn't long before Evan fears that someone is eating his soul. The people around him cannot be trusted. Shortly, he's on the edge of madness.

A series of strange happenings propel him toward greater confusion. Outside his room at right, Evan hears someone pacing. When he ventures outside, he fears he is being followed. Strangled lizards keep appearing in his room. When Aminata's suitor, Lamont, informs him that he is possessed by a jinn who is siphoning off his soul, Evan is eager to undertake any activity that will free him of his possessor. To alleviate his fear and his pain, he relies increasingly on marijuana. His movements suggest sleeping sickness or the earlier assumed malaria. Finally, Lamont tells Evan that the only way he can be free again is by killing another African-American, a man who three years earlier was responsible for the death of Aminata's mother.

About here (roughly three-fourths of the way in to the story), the reader's credibility is indeed strained. What is McKnight's novel supposed to be -- a thriller, with African witchcraft as its backdrop? I wouldn't object to that so much if the other elements of his story were not so disturbing. Hardly a character (African or black American) has been introduced who isn't angry with all the others. Evan himself is totally paranoid about the Africans around him. ("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.") One of the black American teachers at Evan's school refers to her African counterparts as "generally stupid." Another black American educator refers to the Senegalese villagers as "Nothing but . . . trifling fools . . ."

Perhaps McKnight's message is simply that black Americans share no immediate cultural affinity with Africans, that the gap between the two is so enormous that it can rarely be bridged. Certainly, that's a debatable idea, though not a very popular one. Instead, however, I prefer to believe that I Get on the Bus is obscured because the central metaphor of the journey is never clarified. Like Evan Norris, the reader is still riding that bus at the end of the story -- not certain where he's been, where he's going, or where he'll get off.

Charles R. Larson, professor of literature at American University, was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria in the 1960s.