If there is such a thing a typical Peace Corps narrative, Hard As Kerosene isn’t it. Aaron Barlow (Togo 1988-90) shows us four years of West Africa through the eyes of Paul, a young American struggling to define what he wants out of life. The story follows Paul through loneliness, loss, adventure and peril as he rambles from place to place avoiding confrontation with his past. Peace Corps weaves in and out of the plot, but it isn’t quite the central theme of the book. Gone are the long descriptions of service projects and community dynamics. Instead, Barlow exposes some neglected facets of the Peace Corps gestalt as Paul morphs from idealistic tourist, to roving itinerant, to frustrated Volunteer, to cynical ex-pat.
We meet Paul as he arrives in Togo hoping to visit his girlfriend, a Peace Corps Volunteer whom he discovers is no longer interested in continuing their relationship. With no other direction, he becomes drawn to a group of hospitable Volunteers. As Paul gets to know his new friends, we see Volunteers as they might come across to a tourist, sagaciously navigating the foreign environment, bonded to one another by their common struggles and triumphs. Paul accompanies one of the Volunteers to the village where he lives. It is here that Paul sees the Peace Corps as the institution the United States has come to idealize: Young, well-trained Americans providing much-needed assistance to the less accessible areas of the world. Eventually, Paul decides to sign himself up for service. Paul’s own experience as a Volunteer is given a surprisingly brief treatment in the story, but by doing so Barlow actually illustrates a key point about the Peace Corps: A two-year commitment is a flash in the pan to everyone but the Volunteer, including the host community and other expats. Despite its brevity, Barlow exposes many of the frustrations that Volunteers face when working within the larger development milieu.
Barlow’s chapters alternate between two parallel plotlines, one at the beginning of Paul’s journey and one at the end. He juxtaposes Paul against Paul, showing us how he changes–and how he doesn’t. We first meet a doe-eyed romantic, intent on visiting his PCV girlfriend. And then we meet him again, now a grizzled alcoholic who is too arrogant to recognize the danger he is about to find.
Paul is not the easiest character to like. His constant motion from place to place seems to have no objective other than keeping his past at arm’s length and a drink within reach. He is aloof, and as a result we don’t learn much about the people he encounters. And despite professing love and fascination with the culture around him, he seems to prefer the company of other expats.
This destructive self-involvement is more common among PCVs than people may think, and it is a taboo that many RPCVs are reluctant to talk or write about. This is one of the things that makes Kerosene so unique. Barlow lingers on the darker parts of expat life while avoiding many of the clichés of Peace Corps literature. These clichés are also accurate, but so is Paul’s experience, which offers a valuable complement.
Barlow’s writing is not especially florid or verbose, closer to Hemingway’s end of the spectrum than Melville or Dickens. Like Paul, the prose can seem coarse and aloof at times. The reader should not expect vivid depictions of everyday life in West Africa. Novels like Sarah Erdman’s Nine Hills to Nambonkaha are a better place to look for that, but it seems like this was never Barlow’s goal. If books like Nambonkaha are the colorful tiles of the mosaic of Peace Corps literature, then Kerosene is the mortar — gritty and practical — filling the gaps and strengthening the rest of the picture.