The New York cabdriver at the center of Okey Ndibe’s latest novel has a degree in economics from Amherst College, but his own personal economics have been his downfall. All his bills are long past due. Rent on his dingy apartment is months in arrears. The financial damage wreaked by his extravagant former wife, Bernita “Queen Bee” Gorbea, has been extensive, and the gambling debts he’s incurred attempting to fix that damage are constantly increasing. Using a pirated WiFi connection, he gets frequent e-mails from his older sister, Nkiru, back in Nigeria, demanding money for their mother, a destitute Christian who wants him to return home.
Such are the grim and sordid exigencies of debt for Ikechukwu Uzondu (“Eeekay” for short, although his accent-deaf American passengers always say “Ike”). Ndibe, a professor of literature at Brown University, captures Ike’s desperation in a story of sweeping cultural insight and absurd comedy.
Although Ike’s plight is similar to that faced by many millions of immigrants all over the world, his solution is unique: He’ll generate the enormous payday he requires by traveling to Nigeria; stealing the wooden idol of Ngene, the village’s venerable war god; and selling the statue to Mark Gruels, the unctuous proprietor of a New York gallery called Foreign Gods, Inc. Ngene is a powerful god (he has always helped the tribe conquer its enemies), and Ike is certain he’ll fetch a much higher price than the inferior gods who fill Gruels’s shop.
At every point in this torturous quest, Ike is confronted with crassness and shabby opportunism equal to his own. Indeed, the absence of good people in “Foreign Gods, Inc.,” although entertaining, gives the book a somewhat monochrome narrative line. The blustering Nigerian customs officials Ike encounters on his way into the country are mirrored by the wheedling Nigerian airline ticket-taker on the way out, who drops into pidgin English to exhort a bribe.
In his home village, the local priest, Pastor Uka,functions as a ham-fisted sendup of all religious hucksters, telling his cheering congregation, “God woke me up at five thirty-five a.m. . . . God said only those who tithe will be blessed.” A greedy local chief named Iba lives in a showy home that “could easily belong in one of the tony quarters of the Bronx or in the more affluent sectors of Westchester County — anywhere, better still, where money counted more than taste.”
Despite Ndibe’s occasional overwriting (the tendency to pun leads him into temptation), he invests his novel with a satiric tone that’s all the more caustic for being so matter-of-fact. The commercialism of the West is mocked in equal measure with the cupidity of Nigeria. Ndibe makes no special attempts to win our sympathy for Ike. His own gambling has brought on most of these problems, and his god-stealing scheme is ludicrous from the start. His ultimate fate, predictable even before he flies to Africa, is rendered with a stoic power that moves the reader more than histrionics possibly could.
Donoghue is managing editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.
At 6 p.m. on Saturday, Okey Ndibe will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.