At their first meeting, Ike sensed that Bernita was trouble on two legs. She walked up to him like an old acquaintance. Without saying a word, she gathered up the folds of his agbada made of white brocade and lavishly embroidered. She turned the fabric this way and that, trying to hold it to what light there was in the dully lit hall. Then, after close to a minute, she finally looked up at him. Her eyes, guileless and frolicsome, dissolved his half-puzzled, half-consternated expression.
“Where the brother from?” she asked, in a tone that was innocent and tactless. “You from the same town as the dude in Coming to America?”
He couldn’t help smiling. Then he said, “I’m from NIgeria. I don’t know the dude’s town.”
“Ni what?” she said. “Never heard of it.”
“N-I-G-E-R-I-A,” he spelled out.
“Neat.” She regarded him with blithe curiosity.” “So you’s a king or what?” (p. 28)
Nigerian writer Okey Ndibe’s latest novel, Foreign Gods, Inc., is the rare sort of novel that straddles several narrative lines without teetering over to one side or the other. It is an immigrant’s tale, but it is also a biting social commentary. It narrates a protagonist in inner and outer conflict, but it also is a tale of imperialism past and present. Yet these descriptors do not define Foreign Gods, Inc., as it is much more than the sum of its parts.
Ike (pronounced ee-kay, as he himself makes quite clear early in the novel) is a Nigerian taxi cab driver whose past dream of a career in finance has been dashed due to his Nigerian accent. He has bounced from city to city along the east coast, trying to make ends meet, despondent over not being able to provide the “food money” that his relatives back in Nigeria keep asking him for in daily emails. Recently divorced and hurting for cash, he turns to a shady rare items store, Foreign Gods, Inc., that offers quick cash for exotic foreign deities that are brought to their store. Foreign Gods, Inc. is a narration of Ike’s attempt to bring his village’s war god, Ngene, to this store.
Foreign Gods, Inc. utilizes flashbacks, both to Ike’s earlier life and to the arrival of Europeans over a century before to his village, to narrate Ike’s efforts to steal Ngene. Ike easily could have been a narrative cipher, a blank canvas for the action to transpire. Ndibe, however, has imbued Ike with a personality that is complex and yet easy to relate to. He is not the stereotypical immigrant dumbfounded by the wiles of America; he often responds in a sardonic fashion to those who consider himself so. The passage quoted above, told in a flashback early in the novel, is about the first encounter between him and his recently-divorced wife, Bernita. Her blithe ignorance, masked in uncouth directness, is played up in the few scenes where she appears. Her taking of Ike’s money in the divorce settlement, a divorce triggered in part by Ike’s gambling and alcohol addictions, serves as the catalyst for his plan to steal Ngene. Ndibe does an excellent job establishing Ike’s character traits and flaws, which makes the subsequent scenes more powerful as a result.
As Ike makes arrangements to travel back to Nigeria for the theft, his interactions provide subtle yet strong descriptions of the social milieu in which he moves. We see haggling negotiations over material matters, both in New York and in Nigeria. Graft and greed are always near and present. There are times that Ike’s encounters take on a sarcastic mantle, as the latent seediness in informal money exchanges proves to be ripened fields for narrative harvesting. There are moments where the story becomes a near-farce, as Ike struggles to make any headway toward collecting the money necessary to pay for his mounting bills, but by the novel’s end, a much more somber, sober tone has been established, albeit one that remarkably is in harmony with the earlier, more jocular tone.
Ndibe’s characters are well-drawn. Characters that appear for maybe a handful of paragraphs have a depth to them that distinguishes them from the others around them. From old, now-rich friends exploiting those around them under the guise of being a benefactor to grasping relatives who see Ike as more of a living ATM than as a blood relative, these characters possess a life of their own. Ndibe’s prose is sharp and economical, telling an expansive story in 330 pages without feeling truncated or bloated. This, combined with the vivid characterization, makes Foreign Gods, Inc. a delight to read.
There are few weaknesses to this novel. Perhaps at times it seems certain themes are overly emphasized, but on the whole, Ndibe has written a novel that reads well not just for those from the Nigerian diaspora but also for readers such as myself who are natives of the United States. Ndibe’s ability to make his characters relateable to a diverse readership makes Foreign Gods, Inc. an excellent read. It is one of the better novels that I have read this year.