By Teju Cole
Random House. 162 pp. $23
In Walter Mosley’s classic detective novel “Devil in a Blue Dress,” Easy Rawlins tries to beg off from his first case by saying he wants to stay out of trouble. “Easy,” he’s told, “walk out your door in the morning and you’re mixed up in something.”
Teju Cole is our premier novelist of walking out the door and getting mixed up in something. His superb 2011 novel, “Open City,” is about little more than the hero’s wandering the streets of New York and Brussels while musing on art, nature, family and history. Too aimless for a novel? Cole understood that going all over the place could offer a thematic direction as blunt and clear as a one-way sign. Here was a person embracing his introversion to better live in the wider world, and Cole rendered it in gorgeous, photographic prose.
Cole’s newly available novel, “Every Day Is for the Thief,” was first published in 2007 in Nigeria, where Cole grew up. The setting is Lagos, but the sensibility is the same as in “Open City”: Our nameless hero roves the streets, encountering shopkeepers and scam artists, touts and thugs, pondering their meaning all the while.
There isn’t much of a story arc. The book begins with his arrival from New York and ends with his departure. Yet Cole has a knack for elevating each individual encounter into something weighty and poetic. In an Internet cafe where men are busily typing those infamous “advance-fee” scam e-mails that fill your spam folder, Cole writes, “I feel as though I have discovered the source of the Nile.”
That’s just a drop of the torrent of criminality Cole observes, from the constant bribes that keep Lagos running, to the intimidating “area boys” who attempt to heist a shipment of donated school goods, to an 11-year-old child set aflame for stealing — “a wick, nameless, snuffed.”
The narrator is rightly infuriated at all this, but the tone of “Every Day Is for the Thief” isn’t so much outraged as coolly observational. His anger at Lagos’s dysfunction is tempered by glimpses of culture during his travels: a jazz club, a woman reading on the bus. Such moments can’t patch over the city’s corrosion, but they explain his reluctance to dismiss the place. Cole love-hates Lagos the way Martin Amis love-hates London, Edwidge Danticat love-hates Haiti or Nelson Algren love-hated Chicago.
“Every Day Is for the Thief” is a slim book, bulked up slightly with 19 of Cole’s photographs of Lagos. Tellingly, many of the pictures emphasize how difficult it is to see the city: The image is blurred or shot through cracked glass, a fence or rain-spattered car windows. Such photos are apt symbols for a place Cole calls “creative, malevolent, ambiguous,” and his determination to respect and question each of those three elements infuses every page.
The book thrives on the patience and precision of Cole’s vision, the sense that somebody, for the first time in a while, is giving Lagos a fair shake.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix.