Minneapolis writer Alexs Pate doesn't put on airs. His second novel, Finding Makeba, isn't precious or wordy, nor is it ostentatiously terse. Pate invests his energy in capturing the emotional nuances of a topically overheated premise--a black father who has abandoned his wife and daughter--and in devising a simple but daring structure to flesh it out. The father, who had left to become a writer, unpacks his guilt and justifications in an autobiographical first novel. Back in town to promote it at a book signing, the daughter he hasn't seen in years hands him a journal, describing her reaction to each chapter. Finding Makeba alternates the father's novel and the daughter's journal.
As with Pate's first novel, Losing Absalom, Finding Makeba acknowledges the preeminent morality play of family values without falling prey to the cant of political discourse (from either side) on the subject. In fact, just as the valor of the grunt soldiers in Vietnam brought the tragic conniving of our generals and politicians into greater relief, Pate's complex, grounded characterizations expose the shrill vapidity of "cultural warriors" like Pat Buchanan, even when their philosophies occasionally are in consonance. Such gentle grace can be underwhelming: Upon finishing Finding Makeba, my first, visceral reaction was that it was a slight volume (244 pages) with an overly neat resolution. But it stays with me. It's an eloquent, penetrating story.