Maroko, one of the many teeming slums of Lagos, Nigeria (a “pus-ridden eyesore on de face of de nation’s capital,” in local parlance), hardly seems the place to produce an Elvis impersonator. Yet in Chris Abani’s irresistible, kaleidoscopic novel, the shantytowns around Lagos are full of wonders—and festering dangers. In 1983, Elvis Oke, 16, is a street performer attuned to the inner vibrations of the ghetto. “He let his mind drift as he stared at the city, half slum, half paradise,” Abani writes. “How could a place be so ugly and violent yet beautiful at the same time?”
Elvis, who’s grown up in a nearby village under the dual sway of Igbo tradition and Western pop culture, finds in Lagos a maelstrom of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Escaping the abuses of his palm-wine-drinking father, he immerses himself in westerns and overblown Bollywood epics; his shoulder sack, meanwhile, is never without a worn collection of paperbacks—everything from Dostoyevsky to Soyinka, Achebe, and the pulp fiction titles of Onitsha Market Literature. Above all, Elvis’s world is engulfed in music, an ever present soundtrack of highlife, reggae, and jazz. Maroko itself seems to sing under his feet: “The plank walkways, which criss-crossed three-quarters of the slum, rang out like xylophones as a variety of shoes hurrying over them struck diverse notes.”
Elvis’s treacherous journey to manhood takes him far from Maroko. His education begins in the depths of the squatter village known as Bridge City, where he befriends the King of the Beggars, a dreadlocked mystic still suffering from the wounds of the Biafran War. Later, he’ll be drawn into a sinister mission in the interior with Redemption, his well-connected guide through the Nigerian underworld, before finally escaping to the promised land of the original Elvis, “de place where dreams come true.” Abani, who himself has survived a terrifying tale of jail and torture in Nigeria, has written an exhilarating novel, all the more astonishing for its hard-won grace and, yes, redemption.