Thursday, January 30, 2014

Book Review: "Foreign Gods, Inc." by Okey Ndibe

Don't mess with the deities, for you know not what they'll do.

Ikechukwu "Ike" Uzondu is a Nigerian taxi driver in Brooklyn. He's having a tough time of it. Educated at Amherst College, intelligent and ambitious, he is determined to make a better life for himself, but he is unable to get a job because his accent is so thick. Instead of marrying for love, he married for the possibility of a green card, yet wound up with a shrewish wife, who constantly demanded money, accused him of having affairs, cheated on him, and divorced him, taking much of his savings.

But now the rent is due, his gambling debts have him strapped for money, and the emails from his sister and mother back in Nigeria begging for money are becoming increasingly more strident and demanding. Inspired by an article about Foreign Gods, Inc.—a tony New York gallery that specializes in the purchase and sale of deities from foreign countries, Ike decides his best hope for fortune and comfort is to return home to Nigeria and steal Ngene, his ancestral village's war idol. After all, as he has read, "In a postmodern world, even gods and sacred objects must travel or lose their vitality; any deity that remained stuck in its place and original purpose would soon become moribund."

Ike's return home to his village is not as smooth as he had hoped. He nearly gets arrested several times in the airport because he refuses to give customs officials and others the bribes they expect. His mother and sister have fallen under the influence of a corrupt, maniacal Christian preacher, who has captivated many in his village with promises of salvation and talk of the devil. And his mother is at war with Ike's uncle and grandmother, as she has been led to believe by the preacher that they were responsible for Ike's father's death because they worship Ngene, not Jesus.

Foreign Gods, Inc. is in part a meditation on what it's like to be an immigrant in the U.S., and part a reflection on what it's like to return home to a country and a culture you tried so hard to leave behind. At times the book is satirical, as it pokes fun at the mangled English the characters use ("Now I have to be a fantastic hostage by tabulating a drink in front of you," one of Ike's friends says) and their fascination and disbelief at American ways. Toward the end of the book, it turns metaphorical, as Ike begins to experience—or is he simply imagining—the consequences of stealing Ngene away from the village.

Okey Ndibe tells an amusing and intriguing story which may have more roots in truth than I'd imagine. It ran a little slow in places, but Ike's character is fascinating, and his plight made for a compelling read.

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