This is the seventh of ten African books. I’ve been trying to get these books from different African countries, but Nigerian authors are so prolific! They’re hard to escape. Maybe after I finish the ten, I’ll seek out more non-Nigerian books to even it out.
Foreign Gods, Inc. is about Ike, a cabdriver in NYC who had a promising future…until he married poorly and started gambling. Embarrassed by his failures (and his ex-wife), he ignores his mother’s e-mailed pleas for help–he can’t send money home, since he has no money. But he has a plan: return to Nigeria and steal the traditional god, Ngene, from his village. Then sell it to Foreign Gods, Inc, a gallery specializing in, well, foreign gods, occasionally selling them to the rich and famous.
This plan, as you might suspect, does not go as intended.
The first half of this book, the part set in NYC, plodded along for me. I was not into it. A few things did not ring true; for instance, Ike graduated summa cum laude in economics from Amherst, but time after time is rejected from jobs because of his accent. That seemed…unlikely. Ike wallows in the failure of his marriage in a believable but repetitive way, and honestly, by the halfway mark I was wondering if the book was ever going to pick up the pace.
And then it did! Ike has decided to steal Ngene from his village and sell to the highest bidder–a plan that’s astonishing in it’s naivete but fits nicely with Ike’s character, both his personality and desperation. So he travels home to Nigeria. He quickly discovers that he’s neither here nor there, neither a local nor a foreigner, neither Nigerian nor American, neither a Christian nor a heathen. This is of course a theme that comes up again and again in expat/immigrant experience literature, but this story had a particularly interesting twist. When Ike returns to Nigeria, he sees how the preaching of a zealous Christian missionary has changed his home. His mother has disowned her brother- and mother-in-law due to her new-found Christian zeal, accusing them of killing her husband; the local pastor, whom Ike immediately distrusts and sees for the con man that he is, also has his eye on Ngene — but he wants to destroy it as a sign of Christ’s supremacy, whereas Ike only wants to sell it. This is a story about how, and what, we worship–and what it takes to shift our allegiances.
The scenes in Nigeria feel so far away from the first half of the book–Ndibe did a really excellent job of showing how different it can feel to be home, to feel as though you’d never left but also feel as though everything’s changed without you, like your other life is a dream. He also did a great job of showing how American and Nigerian village culture simply don’t connect.
So there’s a lot going on here–the commoditization of religion, the different cultural and personal interpretations of idolatry, the lasting effects of colonialism, the unexpected strains of being a foreigner in a foreign land, the power of greed and despair to subsume even our most noble desires. We serve our gods in different ways, all of us.
Rating: 3.5 stars. I was ready to give this book two stars until the halfway mark. I still don’t love it, but I love that it turned into something so interesting. It’s definitely the most unique of my (seven so far!) African books of Cannonball 6, and the most interesting combination so far of American and African storytelling sensibilities.