The Short Version: Ike, a Nigerian taxi driver in New York, has had a pretty poor string of luck. Despite his good education and his immigration to the US, his life hasn’t really been as successful as he’d hoped. So he returns home intending to steal the war deity of his old tribe and sell it to a gallery in New York – but maybe the god himself has other plans.
The Review: The single thing that I think will stick with me about this book is the idea of the titular gallery. This is not to say that the book, overall, isn’t memorable or well-written – it’s both of those things and I’ll get into details shortly – but rather that the idea of a shop down in Soho where the ridiculously rich purchase the actual physical totems and statues of gods to show off their wealth… it’s inspired. Mostly because it feels like it could probably actually exist. Ndibe does a great job of making it seem real, right down to the New York magazine article so consistently referenced and consulted by our hero – and after having several discussions over the holiday with friends regarding, how shall we put it, “conspicuous consumption” (specifically regarding American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street), it felt timely. Here’s this cabbie, come to the land of opportunity in the hopes of realizing his dreams, watching people drop a cool half-million on a statue of a god they don’t believe in while he can barely pay his bills or his rent. The disparity is staggering.
But, interestingly enough, the disparity doesn’t just exist in the States. The most interesting part of the novel, the middle portion, takes place back in Ike’s village in Nigeria – and things have changed since he’s been gone. On the one hand, there’s a sense of history repeating itself – a Christian preacher has set up shop and set the villagers against one another, including Ike’s mother against his uncle (who happens to be the priest of Ngene, the warrior deity of the village) – but on the other, there are cellphones and flatscreens and increasing inequality just like you’d find anywhere else in world.
Except – and this is what’s most startling, perhaps – the locals don’t quite understand it in the way that anyone who’s spent time in the West understands it. A scene, played somewhat comically but also quite truthfully, where Ike explains to youngsters the realities of playing basketball and how not everyone can be Michael Jordan… it’s hard to summarize the scene because there’s so much addressed so succinctly, but basically he (as an American, now) is attempting to explain the way the West actually works and these kids don’t believe it. Any of it. They don’t understand how someone can not achieve the dream and Ike, having now discovered exactly how, barely knows what to say.
As much as I think this social critique and commentary is important – I don’t know that I’ve read something that has addressed modern Africa so well since Chinua Achebe – I feel like Ndibe wanted to write two different novels here. The socio-cultural novel that exists is a good one, strong and well-constructed, but he adds this vaguely mystical/mythic element that never quite solidifies. Early in the novel, Ike has a weird (and potentially god-induced) blackout and there are hints, throughout the novel, that Ngene may actually be real… but in the last forty or so pages, this mystical quality gets amplified in a way that (for me) undercuts the message of the rest of the book. The idea of these gods being ‘real’ (in whatever sense of the term) is a strong one and worth a novel – just imagining this Soho-based shop, full of slumbering deities, makes me think of the American Gods universe – but so too is the idea that we (both the West and just humanity in general) have screwed ourselves up so badly that all the money in the world won’t be able to buy our way out of this hole. And when Ndibe turns his eye towards the latter, this is an exceptional novel – but when he splits the difference on the fantastical stuff, it lessens the impact.
Rating: 3 out of 5. Ultimately, this book is something less than the sum of its parts – excellent though those parts may be. Ndibe has a sharp eye for the realities on the ground both in Nigeria and in the States – but there are two different types of story here and neither of them fully commands the tale at hand. As a result, I found myself just sort of shrugging the book away as I finished it, despite it having started off so strong.
(Review originally appeared at TNBBC – check it out there: http://thenextbestbookblog.blogspot.com/2014/01/drew-reviews-foreign-gods-inc.html)