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GRACELAND by Chris Abani


by Chris Abani

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-374-16589-0
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A Nigerian-born poet and first-novelist limns a teenage boy struggling for direction in Lagos under the heel of a brutal military dictatorship.

Elvis Oke is 16, saddled with an alcoholic father, a hostile stepmother, and fading memories of his dead mother, who named him for her favorite American singer and whose tattered journal is his only connection to happier days in the Nigerian countryside. Abani weaves the journal’s recipes and tribal lore together with Elvis’s memories of his early years to provide background for the main action during 1983. The Okes are Igbo, “one of nearly 300 indigenous people in this populous country,” the narration informs us—sounding, as it frequently does, like an informational guide for foreigners. Elvis’s father, Sunday, ran for elected office in a hopeful period between juntas, but he didn’t have enough money to compete in Nigeria’s hopelessly corrupt system, the army seized power again, and now Sunday is drunk and jobless in Lagos, while his son wonders what kind of life he can fashion for himself in this desperate land. Sensitive and bookish, Elvis tries to make a living as a Presley impersonator, dancing and singing for handouts from tourists, but he’s tempted by his friend Redemption to make quick cash ferrying drugs and other contraband for the sinister Colonel, nastiest of the corrupt, vicious soldiers whose arbitrary whims rule the lives of ordinary people in Nigeria. A horrific lynching scene shows the mob to be as savage as the military—“How long can we use the excuse of poverty?” Elvis asks—and Abani paints a compelling portrait of a society in frightening chaos. Unfortunately, the factual background is superior to the author’s fictional gifts; the grim story of the Oke family arouses our pity but fails to evoke a more active empathy that would enable readers to see their own yearnings and failures in the rather schematic characters.

Worth reading for its searing depiction of modern Africa, but Abani is no Chinua Achebe.