In his novel about a black Elvis impersonator living in the slums of Lagos,
Nigeria, Chris Abani presents a lyrical and terrifying glimpse of a place saturated in American
icons and pop culture, but entirely unlike America. In this melting pot, the disparate ingredients—John
Wayne and King Kong, Bob Marley and Bollywood, Wole Soyinka and native Igbo rituals—are
at a roiling boil.
Abani was imprisoned at the hands of the military regime in Nigeria in
the mid-1980s. His poems and this novel speak with the authority of that experience, but GraceLand
is far from propaganda. It raises complicated questions of moral responsibility in communities
that are at the mercy of absolute and absolutely corrupted powers.
The novel’s weakness lies in its organization; important characters
and themes disappear, their emotional weight left hanging. But the momentum of this Elvis’ coming-of-age
story is nonetheless powerful. His friend Redemption leads him into the darkness of Lagos’ criminal
underworld. Elvis’ resistance to the compromises he is asked to make—Where, he asks, do
the drugs he is packaging go?—ends up risking both his and Redemption’s lives.
Elvis’ morality makes him ultimately unfit for life in Lagos. America,
the birthplace of the real Elvis and the land of better impersonating opportunities, remains the
promised land. It’s a welcome promise of hope and change—for Elvis. But Abani runs the risk
of indicting everyone who remains in Lagos; after all the beauty he has shown us amid the horror,
that seems unfair.