In this deeply pessimistic novel about modern Africa, 14-year-old Elvis Oke just wants to dance. Living in a sprawling shantytown on the outskirts of Lagos, the largest city in Africa's most populous country, Nigeria, he dreams of escaping from the filth, violence, and despair that define life in the slums of the developing world with his dancing. As Graceland opens, Elvis is content to earn a few coins impersonating his famous American namesake for visiting Europeans, but as his situation at home with his bitter, alcoholic father becomes intolerable, he begins to look for more lucrative employment through his friend Redemption. The jobs that his ironically named benefactor set up for him, however, range from the semilegal to the abominable, forcing Elvis to make hard choices between survival and morality.
In many respects, Graceland is an impressive work of fiction, the author's third novel and first to be published in this country. Chris Abani--who is also a poet, playwright, and political exile twice arrested by Nigerian authorities for sedition--vividly describes the physical realities of Third World poverty: Elvis' nightmarish trips to the community toilet alone are more convincing than volumes of U.N. studies on sanitary conditions in urban Africa. He also captures the genuinely multicultural cast of contemporary Nigerian society, which takes in equally American and Indian films; European pop, Jamaican reggae, and traditional and modern African music; Nigerian pulp fiction and classics from the African-American canon. These qualities compensate for Abani's weaknesses as a novelist--his stilted dialogue, particularly in scenes of confrontation, and his overly didactic tone. To be fair, he has much to preach about.
Abani's unrelentingly bleak vision of Nigeria offers little hope for a country that was once the hope of Africa. Since achieving independence from Britain in 1961, Nigeria has suffered through a civil war, Cold War-enabled military dictatorships, and a traumatic integration into the international economy. Readers can be thankful that Abani confines his narrative to the 1970s and '80s, sparing them from the devastation of AIDS, which has hit Nigeria particularly hard, the entrenched corruption brought on by the oil boom, and the increasing sectarian violence between the country's Muslim, Christian, and animist peoples.
What can be done? As portrayed in Graceland, not much. Abani is cynical about both the motives and the results of international aid, and he is doubtful about the ability or even willingness of Nigeria's people to challenge the grim status quo. As Elvis boards a plane bound for America in the novel's bittersweet conclusion, flight seems to be the only answer to such deep-rooted and widespread problems, at least for those few who can find a means of escape.