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The International Writers Magazine
: A Charlie Dickinson Review

GRACELAND by Chris Abani
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004, 322 pp.
ISBN: 0-374-16589-0

...a contemporary African coming-of-age story told with unmistakable conviction

Any novel whose first sentence announces a main character named "Elvis" has much promise to fulfill. For almost thirty years, Elvis in fiction has been about as common as Elvis sightings, and not much more credible. GRACELAND by Nigerian expat Chris Abani delivers what might be the ultimate tribute to the King, if the Elvis myth is really about a dirt-poor boy finally catching his dream and making good.

Possibly ebony to the original's ivory, Elvis Oke, sixteen-year-old slum dweller in Lagos, Nigeria, still tries to earn his way as a street performer: Rich tourists tip him for his Elvis impersonation. Oke is not, of course, the literal Elvis fake, but something closer, Abani seems to suggest, to the true spirit of Elvis--America's rock-and-roll gift to the world. With an apt metaphoric schema, Abani brings American glitzy dreams--Las Vegas-style--to just another global antipode, the wretched nightmare of living in a hovel in Maroko, a slum outside Lagos.

GRACELAND is a contemporary African coming-of-age story told with unmistakable conviction. Consider these three sentences from the flap copy: "Chris Abani was born in Nigeria. At age sixteen he published his first novel, for which he suffered severe political persecution. He went into exile in 1991, and has lived in England and the United States." The details about the horror of life in a military state in GRACELAND are no impersonation and have the stamp of personal knowledge. Though at times told with a darkly hilarious touch, the travails of Elvis ominously suggest a tragic end is never far away.

With narrative deftness, Abani weaves scenes from Elvis's early years with the misery of the present. At age five, in a traditional ceremony, Elvis, with the village male elders present, must kill an "eagle." But with tradition growing dearer, they must settle for a pre-killed chick. In the years that follow, and in definite and unavoidable steps, Elvis and his alcoholic father leave their Nigerian village life, coming to live in Lagos, where paradoxically they're isolated from the oil riches of Nigeria (one of few countries on the African continent awash in petroleum and favored by oil companies shying away from Mideast political instabilities).
The present story line throws enough obstacles Elvis's way to power larger novels. An alcoholic father named Sunday always good for a serving of abuse. A step mother named Comfort--alas, anything but. An Aunt Felicia given to nonfelicitous teasing of Elvis about his sexual awakening. A good friend named Redemption, always ready to help Elvis get a job (construction laborer, escort for foreign women), but also leading Elvis towards a life of crime ("but is only a little illegal."). And then there's the Colonel--not the Colonel Tom Parker--but a sadist who heads Nigeria's homeland security, for whom Elvis works briefly and then ...

With a convincing portrayal of the community in which Elvis is trapped, with the well-observed textures of daily life (a bonus for the reader is a veritable cookbook of Nigerian food preparation recipes dividing chapters), and with often endearing dialect, GRACELAND brings to life one more story of how America affects people everywhere. The naked abuse of state power leaves many like Elvis with no hope other than exile.

For centuries, and before its founding, America has been the idea fate might be outsmarted, people had a shot at a "second chance." A message quick to cross national boundaries, an idea that goes beyond words and is often known as the irresistable rhythms of rock-and-roll. It might not be that simple, but much academic ink suggests heavy metal had something to do with the Iron Curtain's collapse.

At novel's end, Elvis Oke is about to escape Nigeria, as his author did. But the real story is until that moment the reader is privileged to live inside the skin of a most unlikely Elvis impersonator, in this exceptional American debut novel. Few young novelists draw from life experiences with such universal consequence. And few live to sing about the Jailhouse Rock!

© Charlie Dickinson March 3rd 2004

Happy Days by Laurent Graff
A Charlie Dickinson review

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