By switching between flashbacks and the present, and sprinkling in some gritty scenes (child rape) and colorful detail (quoting John Wayne) Chris Abani builds a compelling narrative through the first half Graceland, like the beginning of a roller coaster ride clacking you to the top of the first big hill. About halfway through I felt eager and anxious that the rest of the novel would be a frightening, downward spiral—I was right. Abani tells a story woven with interesting characters in a land less than paradise (slums of Lagos); there is always a nagging sense that things are not going to be pretty. This, I assume, is the way life in Lagos’ netherworlds really is, which is why I am was a little disappointed in the “Hollywood,” cheesy ending.
Having never visited a real slum, I have foggy ideas of its poverty, of putrid streets and filthy public toilets. Bare bedrooms and drug deals in the shadows. Guns tucked under t-shirts and barefoot children padding down litter-strewn, unpaved roads. Details make a story unique to the author, place, and narrative. In Graceland, examples include intermittent allusions to Igbo customs and offhand remarks mixing local, animalist beliefs into the narrative. In one quick scene, the protagonist Elvis Oke is young, in the yard, fetching water for his bath and whistling the theme song from Casablanca. His grandmother admonishes him: “Elvis, stop dat! You know it is taboo to whistle at night. You will attract a spirit.” Without that witchy-warning, this slummy backyard could be anywhere: the backstreets of Tijuana, forgotten parts of Queens, the sprawl of New Delhi, the favelas of São Paulo. Details are what bring it back to Lagos each time. Yam recipes. Palm oil and palm wine. Herbal remedies and anti-witchcraft concoctions—these are Nigerian.
Graceland’s overarching themes (boy becomes a man; vulnerability in the face of violent regimes, etc) are universal. The main character, Elvis Oke, mulls over a decision to follow his dream of becoming a dancer, noting, “There was a positive side to not trying at something: you could always pretend that your life would have been different if you had.” Who can’t relate to having to make such a decision?
Still, Graceland seems to me to be a story that is—in its particulars—very Nigerian. I appreciate getting a glimpse of the lives of those living physically in a place many in the West find exotic and curious, and easily packaged as a “megacity.” Abani writes that the streets of the slum “singed straight and proud, like a rope burn or a cane’s welt.” I am not sure I know what a cane’s welt looks like; Abani certainly does and so do, unfortunately, his fellow Nigerians. Later, after some very scary tribulations, Elvis has an exchange with a soldier who roughs him up. Abani expresses his impotency: “The tears that wouldn’t come for his father streamed freely now as he felt worthless in the face of blind, unreasoning power.” Just little reminders that between New York City and Lagos, our day-to-day existences, and the hurdles we must overcome to get through those days, are very different.
This is one of several "quick reviews," a series that provides a snapshot of international arts and culture.
Chris Abani, Nigeria, Quick Review