Trying to Filch the Blessings of the Idol Rich
By Janet Maslin
Okey Ndibe’s razor-sharp “Foreign Gods, Inc.” steps into the story of a Nigerian-born New Yorker called Ike, just as everything in his life has begun to go horribly wrong. The only thing worse than Ike’s present situation is the plan he makes to remedy it.
Ike, whose name is correctly pronounced EE-kay, has an Amherst degree cum laude in economics. But his accent has kept him from finding a job. So he works as a cabby, with customers who call him “Eekay,” which means “buttocks” in Igbo. He has made a bad marriage to a woman who walked off with his savings, and debts now overwhelm him. The only thing he has of value is something of age-old mystical significance that is not exactly in his possession. And, intellect notwithstanding, he gets the bright idea of acquiring and selling it from a trendy article in New York magazine.
A friend sends Ike the article about an art gallery called Foreign Gods Inc., which gives this book its terrifically apt title. Only in mimicking a slick American idiom does Mr. Ndibe falter, and that’s probably to his credit. (From the fake New York magazine: “ ‘A summons to heaven doesn’t come easy or cheap,” says a gallery patron, referring to the place’s most expensive upper floor.”) But the gist of the piece is that a dealer named Mark Gruels traffics in deities from faraway places, which mean nothing but money to either him or his customers. As the book begins, Ike arrives at the gallery to see a tanned woman holding a squat statue to her breast, leaving Foreign Gods and getting into her BMW.
Ike is desperate enough to believe that Gruels will pay big money for Ngene, the powerful war god that presided over the Nigerian region where he was raised. Mr. Ndibe has his own memories of war to draw upon: He grew up in the midst of the Biafran war and was a Nigerian journalist and academic before coming to the United States, as a protégé of Chinua Achebe. He has had a distinguished teaching career and is the author of one earlier novel, “Arrows of Rain” (2000). But “Foreign Gods, Inc.,” which arrives early in January, will still have the impact of an astute and gripping new novelist’s powerful debut.
Not far into the book, Ike is on his way back to Nigeria with only one plan in mind: to steal what he thinks is an inanimate object and bring it back to New York. That scheme alone is evidence of how far he has strayed from his roots, and how much of a re-education awaits him.
At first, he is simply struck by the physical changes to his native land: Where did all those zinc-roofed concrete buildings with satellite dishes come from? But then the sense memories of the place begin to seduce him, and he falls into a swoon of reminiscence that would be enchanting, if it were not constantly interrupted by the harsh realities of his relatives and former neighbors.
Ngene the war god plays some mysterious role in all of this. Much of the village’s hardship dates back to the disruptive visit of a British missionary who was determined to teach the superiority of Christianity to Nigerian pagans. Even this takes the form of materialism, as the increasingly mad Englishman, Stanton, insists that his God is more powerful because he owns everything, while the Nigerian gods possess nothing. Nothing but the hearts and minds of their followers.
Stanton is gone, but in his wake he left bitter divisiveness and a terrible conflation of religion and greed. So Ike returns to find that his mother, who for years has had Ike’s sister bombard him with plaintive, begging letters (“Mama wonders if you want us to eat sand”), has fallen under the spell of a pastor who sees religious commitment in terms of dollar signs.
The influence of America is everywhere, and so are its own foreign gods: Ike finds impoverished Nigerian kids watching old reruns of Michael Jordan playing basketball, talking about what they would do if they were as rich and widely worshiped as he once was. They’d buy houses. Cars. Shirts with brand names on them. And pizza, even though not one of these kids has ever tasted it. They’ve just seen people eat it on American TV, and the people look happy after they do.
Ike’s journey through his past is so richly evocative that he and the reader may almost forget what he went home to do. But by the time he turns his attention to Ngene, whose high priest is Ike’s uncle, it’s clear that Ngene is more than just a wooden artifact. The past has proved, to anyone who would take heed, that Ngene is powerful, indestructible, vengeful and not easily subject to the whims of others. So a great deal more than art dealing is at stake as Ike enacts the final stage of his crazy, misbegotten plan.
Throughout “Foreign Gods, Inc.,” Ike’s hard-won urban Americanness, the kind that allowed him to drive a New York taxi, slowly evaporates. It is replaced by a more primal, physical life, as he becomes more attuned to sounds and smells, especially to the stinks of suffering, failure and fear.
Mr. Ndibe invests his story with enough dark comedy to make Ngene an odoriferous presence in his own right, and certainly not the kind of polite exotic rarity that art collectors are used to. At one point, the novel compares him to the demonic Baal, and Ngene shows many signs of wishing to live up to that reputation. In Mr. Ndibe’s agile hands, he’s both a source of satire and an embodiment of pure terror.