SCRIBBLING THE CAT

Travels With an African Soldier

By Alexandra Fuller. Penguin Press. 256 pp. $24.95

On a Christmas visit to her parents' fish farm in Zambia a few years ago, Alexandra Fuller first heard talk of a mysterious neighbor, a white African veteran of the Rhodesian War of the 1970s whom her father described as a "tough bugger." The man whom Fuller calls K happened by her parents' farm the next morning -- and she was immediately fascinated.

"Even at first glance, K was more than ordinarily beautiful, but in a careless, superior way, like a dominant lion or an ancient fortress. . . . He looked like he was his own self-sufficient, debt-free, little nation -- a living, walking, African Vatican City. . . . He looked cathedral." He was also the embodiment of the white minority oppressors who ruled Rhodesia until a nationalist uprising led to its becoming, in 1980, black-ruled Zimbabwe.

The author's curiosity about K grew into an obsession, and as his contradictions emerge, it becomes clear why. A racist and a war criminal with a penchant for shocking violence, K was simultaneously a born-again Christian and a good Samaritan (he once rescued a nanny from the jaws of a crocodile) who had sworn off alcohol, ran a medical clinic and easily burst into emotional tears.

Fans of Fuller's bestselling debut memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, an often outrageous account of her white African childhood, can expect some of the same searing, at times intoxicating, prose in Scribbling the Cat. But while her portrait of K is striking, intimately revealing a soul tormented by specters of war and guilt and loss, the book on the whole is unsatisfying. It is based on a contrived premise and results in an anemic narrative.

The premise, conceived by Fuller, was that she and K would travel over his old battlefields of more than 20 years ago -- from Zambia through Zimbabwe and into Mozambique. K would face his ghosts, and she would write about the journey. The tour essentially served its purpose, stirring in K a series of dark recollections -- which are usually far more interesting than the trip itself -- and ushering this unlikely pair into the company of a cast of eccentric and unstable characters (including an old war buddy of K's who lives alone on an island with an untamed lion). A strange, pained friendship grew between them, and it became colored by K's sexual attraction to Fuller; their already precarious relationship nearly fractured after her brief flirtation with another veteran.

Fuller can flat out write, and her rousing portrayals of the African landscape and the people and creatures that inhabit it can, as in her last book, rise to the level of lyricism:

"Out here, beyond the reach of the electric glare that spread from the rondaval, the witching darkness was so turbulent and vaporous with freshly hatched life and with its immediate contemporaries, death and decay, that the air seemed softly boiling with song, and with rustling wings and composting bodies." It is one of Fuller's great assets that she does not soften or shy away from the unseemly or the uncomfortable or the self-incriminating.

But in at least one instance, she greatly exaggerates her own complicity in an ostensible attempt to draw parallels between herself and her subject. After hearing K recount how he had brutally tortured an African teenage girl who later died of her injuries, Fuller says she thought: "This was my war too. . . . I was every bit that woman's murderer." That's a lot of guilt to assume, given that Fuller was a small child at the time.

This book is steeped in a medley of other vexing issues -- from the anguish of veterans living with their sins to the elusiveness of faith to the possibility of redemption. Fuller tries mightily to fathom K, but, with a few exceptions, refrains from judging him and the other veterans she encountered. Some readers may question whether she adequately deals with the pervasive racism that motivates these men.

In short, while it has several intense passages, Scribbling the Cat suffers from a slack story line -- a deficiency that will be all the more apparent to those who have read Fuller's stunning first book. Instead we are given a leisurely procession of anecdotes and musings that nonetheless illuminate the restless, haunted, often maniacal world of men whose wars still churn inside them. *

Adam Fifield is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the author of "A Blessing Over Ashes: The Remarkable Odyssey of My Unlikely Brother."