A phenomenal street kid from the slums of Nairobi is the narrator of this second novel, a fable with realistic underpinnings.
Levine is a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic. His 2009 novelistic debut, The Blue Notebook, featured the street children of Mumbai; this novel confirms his identification with the Third World urban poor. Take Bingo Mwolo. He’s a 15-year-old orphan in the Kibera slum. Known as "Meejit" (midget) because he’s only 4 feet tall, though big where it counts, he’s one of an army of drug runners for his boss, Wolf. “I am the greatest,” he brags, and not just because he’s fleet of foot; he has a good head for numbers, the legacy of his gambling father, and a keen instinct for self-preservation in a world where one wrong move means death. In between runs, he picks the pockets of tourists in the market. By chance, he’s a witness when Wolf kills the drug kingpin Boss Jonni. Bingo goes underground, staying in an orphanage run by Father Matthew, a white pederast who controls the drug business behind the scenes. Levine has found just the right voice for Bingo, an upbeat survivor mired in corruption yet still capable of redemption. Pacing problems arise when a white American, Mrs. Steele, pays $30,000 to adopt Bingo. The action sputters and stalls. One of Bingo’s drug customers is the painter Thomas Hunsa. Mrs. Steele, a gallery owner, recognizes the market value of his outsider art. There is much ado over a contract. Levine also introduces African legends, notably that of Anansi, the trickster god who masquerades as a spider. Bingo, now installed in a luxury hotel and mulling a romance with the beautiful young night cleaner Charity, is conflicted. Who exactly is the trickster? The denouement is messy.
Though the overarching legends don’t quite harmonize with the struggling mortals below, one thing’s for sure: Bingo will win hearts.