WAITING FOR AN ANGEL

By Helon Habila

Norton. 229 pp. $23.95

The press materials for "Waiting for an Angel" describe it as a novel, although the cover copy plays it safer -- and smarter -- by simply labeling it fiction. Each of its seven chapters seems designed to stand alone despite its readily apparent connection to the others. In this promising though skeletal debut by Helon Habila, a disturbing feeling of dislocation radiates throughout and provides its various elements with much-needed cohesion.

The central figure is Lomba, a young journalist and aspiring novelist searching for love and some semblance of stability in Lagos, Nigeria. The shaky straits in which Lomba and his countrymen find themselves occur in an age of uncertainty that could be reasonably described as "General" Confusion. Although the events take place during the reign of Gen. Sani Abacha, who ruled Nigeria from 1993 until his death in 1998, they could just as well have occurred in other periods of the troubled nation's recent history. "One General goes, another one comes," Lomba's editor observes, "but the people remain stuck in the same vicious groove. Nothing ever changes for them except the particular details of their wretchedness."

"Waiting for an Angel" is a loose-limbed ramble of a book, despite the episodes of violence and tension that burst forth with some regularity. Its chapters shift back and forth in time -- years come and go in the space of paragraphs -- adding to the unsteadiness. The first chapter begins with extracts from diaries Lomba kept in prison when he was a political detainee. The last chapter ends with him heading toward a demonstration that we know will lead to his detention.

In between, Lomba plods and staggers through bloody, dusty, crowded streets. He goes to school, drops out, finds work at a magazine. Men and boys steal to survive. Young girls sell themselves. In a country that is a major producer of oil, cars wait in line at service stations for days in vain hopes of filling up. Although there's rarely gas for cars, there always seems to be enough on hand to burn someone alive. Squandermania is to blame for the squalor, but anyone who dares to speak out against the wasteful government soon receives a visit from shadowy men in Peugeots, followed by death or detention.

Lomba tries to keep his balance and hold on to his dream of literary success, finding moments of solace in the poetry of Sappho, or songs by Otis Redding and Percy Sledge -- art forms that provide tantalizing glimpses of other possibilities. But he tends to rely on art from foreign sources: Writers and musicians in Lagos are forced to meet in secret and share their offerings in hushed voices. Cynicism runs so deep that even these gatherings, convened in the name of art and dissent, dissolve into alcoholic revelries.

Romance is risky, if not foolhardy, under such conditions. Habila's female characters tend to lose their men to death or prison. Lomba doesn't fare much better. In one chapter, his girlfriend leaves him for a wealthy older man. In another, a woman walks out on him after living with him for a year. Their departures leave him sad but never surprised. For Lomba, pledges of fidelity can hardly be expected to withstand the tumult of life in Lagos. "What was a mere promise in the face of all these cataclysms," he muses. "What was love but luxury?"

Helon Habila has a clear-cut mission to expose the excesses of dictatorship, particularly the crimes of Gen. Abacha. To attempt fiction with such a predetermined agenda at first glance seems ill-considered, but perhaps only to a Westerner accustomed to art being mostly ignored and rarely censored. In a society such as the one Habila depicts, art isn't merely a low-yield calling, it is often a suicidal one. Lomba's editor seems to speak for the author when he tells his young staffer that he can't continue to avoid writing about current events. "You can't escape it," he warns. "In this country the very air we breathe is politics."

To boost their spirits amid increased crackdowns on dissidents -- the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the jailing of Moshood Abiola -- Habila's intense young intellectuals invoke such icons as Frantz Fanon and Martin Luther King Jr. That's appropriate and credible, but while reading Habila's vivid descriptions of rampant chaos, I couldn't help thinking of Ralph Ellison, who was fond of describing art as "the marvelous pulling itself up out of the chaos of the universe." Little that's marvelous happens in "Waiting for an Angel" -- though competently written, it is almost relentlessly depressing -- but it does contain a few moments of optimism. The best can be found in the advice Lomba gives to a student just before a peaceful demonstration erupts into bloodshed: "Here in this country our dreams are never realized; something always contrives to turn them into a nightmare. But that should not stop us from dreaming."