Paul Bowles' first attempt at a novel suffers from one salient fault--the author tries too hard. Attempting to depict man's flight into moral chaos and nihilism, Mr. Bowles utilizes a plot too weird to convince and a technique too realistic to carry the reader to the symbolic level.
Kit and Port Moresby, bewildered by their inability to make a happy marriage in all oppressive world, drop their martinis and set off to North Africa with an infantile friend named Tunner whose function is to annoy both protagonists and sleep with harassed, ambivalent Kit.
In North Africa the happy trio is joined by Mrs. Lyle and her "pale and simple" son Eric who alternates between sleeping with his dominating mother and stealing from his fellow travelers. When Port dies from typhoid in a likely French Arab outpost, Kit wanders off into the desert where she is taken in by two Arab traveling salesmen whose actions prove that traveling salesman are the same the world over. Kit finally escapes from her harem when she finds that her Arab lover has to spend a few nights with some of his other wives. She then takes up with an unsavory Frenchman for a few days, is found by the authorities and trundled off to suitable care.
From this simple arrangement Mr. Bowles seeks to establish the lack of moral and social authors which permits the tides of life to push us all about one way or another. But the lurid quality of Kit's refuge in the "friendly carnal presence" of the nearest male makes the jump from the naturalistic to the symbolic level difficult.
Actually Mr. Bowles does achieve some very fine mood creation in his descriptions of travels through the deserts from one squalid town to the next. Only when he allows his characters to become reflective does he ruin this mood.
Mr. Bowles has dropped several John O'Hara characters into a Prokosch setting and used them to establish the fact that the human race is going into a moral Sahara fast. It is difficult to picture these people going any other way, but at the same time it is unfair to use them to symbolize all of humanity.
The sad part is that "The Sheltering Sky" will be a best seller.