By Chris Cleave
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 23, 2009
I DO NOT COME TO YOU BY CHANCE
By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
Hyperion. 402 pp. Paperback, $15.99
"Dear Friend, I do not come to you by chance. Upon my quest for a trusted and reliable foreign business man or company, I was given your contact by the Nigerian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. I hope that you can be trusted to handle a transaction of this magnitude."
The feelings that such unsolicited e-mails provoke -- impatience, scorn, amusement -- make most of us click the delete button daily. Nigerian e-mail scams are so notorious that few of us give them a thought. And yet these missives are an unsung literary form, a river of wheedling, flattery and grasping that flows directly from the desires of the human heart. The young Nigerian writer Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is determined to follow them back to their source. Her pointed and poignant first novel is a lively, good-humored and provocative examination of the truth behind a global inbox of deceit.
As the story opens, Kingsley, a first-born son, struggles to provide for his beloved family when his ailing father's income dwindles. Possessed of a fine mind but poorly connected in the corrupt Nigerian job market, Kingsley falls in with his notorious uncle, Cash Daddy, the larger-than-life mastermind of a thousand e-mail scams. A silver-tongued cross between Homer Simpson and Col. Kurtz, Cash Daddy is a conman of blubbery greed, chilling wisdom, offbeat charm and unabashed naked exhibitionism -- all delightfully rendered. As Kingsley puts it, "He could probably even talk a spider into weaving silk socks for him."
As Kingsley falls reluctantly under his mentor's spell and discovers his own innate flair for the art of the confidence trick, Nwaubani takes us deeper into the intricate world of the Nigerian e-mail scam. She wears her research lightly; the detailed exposition of the methods deployed to string along Western suckers is fascinating and often funny. In one scene, a young Nigerian man, to the uproarious encouragement of his friends, masquerades as a buxom makeup artist from New Jersey and texts a libidinous Salt Lake City man until he wires $4,000 against the promise that his "babe" will come to visit him. Nwaubani further enlivens such winning vignettes with fearless similes: "It felt as if a gallon of 2,2,4-trimethylpentane had been pumped into my heart," Kingsley says, "and set alight with a stick of match."
As the scams increase in scale and audacity, the novel begins to accomplish something more than simply poking fun at the lust and rapacity that make a small but lucrative fraction of Westerners susceptible to such scams. Significantly, the names of Nwaubani's suckers are not Smith and Jones but rather Rumsfeld, Albright, Condoleezza and Letterman; they are little people with big people's names and emotional resonance. The reader is thus invited to see the whole fraught relationship between Africa and the West in the microcosm of these deceptively simple e-mails from Nigeria. There is a pulsating anger underneath all the tricks and the levity. When challenged regarding the immorality of ripping off unsuspecting Westerners, Nwaubani's characters explicitly cite slavery and the Western exploitation of the Niger Delta's oil wealth as justification; they're merely repatriating capital that they feel was taken from them unjustly. The picture is further complicated by the charitable use to which a great deal of the embezzled money is put in the novel: building schools, paving roads and funding orphanages. "No matter what the media proclaimed," says Kingsley, "we were not villains, and the good people of Eastern Nigeria knew it."
Nwaubani's subversive skill lies in telling us a familiar story from an unfamiliar angle. By making Robin Hood heroes of the vilified perpetrators of e-mail scams, she allows us to enjoy watching a potbellied pervert from Utah pay an African village kid's school fees. But Nwaubani does not ignore the moral difficulties of this arrangement, and indeed the emotional propulsion of the novel comes from Kingsley's own growing disgust at what he is becoming.
This is not a flawless novel -- it is an original and heartfelt debut that occasionally offends against pacing and plausibility -- but its flaws are more than compensated for by Nwaubani's storytelling skill and the sharp pair of eyes she lends us. Western audiences have grown up with films such as "The Sting" and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," in which scammers are charming and their victims covetous and vile. In Western pop culture, when white folks go on the scam, it's a comedy -- or, if they do it on a truly grand scale, it's a taxpayer bailout -- yet when Africans go scamming, it's a crime. One of Nwaubani's many fine achievements in publishing her timely novel here is to give Westerners credit for beginning to move on from that. I hope we can be trusted to handle a transaction of this magnitude.
Cleave's most recent novel is "Little Bee."