War Wounds

Alexandra Fuller remembers precisely the moment that "Scribbling the Cat" got tricky. "I was sitting in the Denver airport three years ago," she said in a phone interview from outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where she lives with her husband and two children. She was reading over a draft of a story that would run in The New Yorker about a white African--an ex-soldier in the Rhodesian Army and a born-again Christian. "The magazine had asked for 6,000 words and already I was up to 30,000, and sitting in the airport I felt sick when it hit me that to tell the story, I was going to have to write about myself the way I'd planned to write about this man." Doing it right, she realized, meant telling the reader, "There's a piece of him that you see as vulnerable and only I saw that piece, because he had decided he was in love with me. And in a bizarre way, it was this love story. Part of me felt true love for him. And part of me was utterly, utterly horrified."

"Scribbling the Cat" describes the racked friendship of Fuller, 35, and the man she calls simply K, as they travel through Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique. An extended version of The New Yorker article, it is no more a simple profile of an ex-soldier than Fuller's first book, the acclaimed best seller "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight," was merely a memoir of growing up. That book was all about growing up wrong as the child of parents on the white-supremacist side of the Rhodesian civil war in the '70s. "Scribbling" is about what happens when the fighting stops. K was a soldier who killed, he said, "as many [people] as I could." Today he is a peaceable Christian farmer. Yet for all his macho taciturnity, he is a damaged man who can never escape what Fuller calls "the extended heartbrokenness of war." But beyond that, this book is about the weird intertwining of reporter and subject, and how each bends the story's reality. "I was so deeply invested in the story that I would stop at almost nothing to get it," Fuller says. "And he was so deeply invested in me that he would stop at almost nothing to get me. It was this contest, this struggle of wills--that's the story that I tried to write."

"Scribbling the Cat" is not quite the equal of Fuller's indelible debut. It sputters in the first half. But when Fuller and K make it to Mozambique, where he also fought, the story catches fire. There they meet an old comrade of K's, a man so twisted that he lives alone on an island with only a pet lion for company. Superficially, these old soldiers are off-the-rack tough guys. But their sleep is punctuated by screams, and their days are bulwarked by prayer, booze--anything to keep the past at bay. In the end, Fuller wanted only to "wash their words and their war and their hatred from my head, and I wanted to be incurious and content and conventional." Since she was none of those things, she sat down to write "Scribbling the Cat," one of the strangest, best books ever about the ravages of war.