Foreign Gods, Inc.

by Okey Ndibe

(Soho, $26, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Okey Ndibe is a Nigerian émigré who lives with his family in West Hartford. He was an award-winning member of The Courant’s editorial board and editor of African Commentary, a magazine founded by the acclaimed Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. Ndibe teaches African and African Diaspora literatures at Brown University and holds MFA and PhD degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He has taught at Connecticut College, Bard College, Trinity College, and the University of Lagos (as a Fulbright scholar). His previous novel is “Arrows of Rain.”

What is this book about?

Ikechukwu Uzondu, “Ike for short,”  has a degree in economics but can find only demeaning work as a New York cabbie, hampered from achieving more by his impenetrable Nigerian accent, love of gambling and volatile personality. Bankrupted by his passionate and predatory former wife, Ike devises a get-rich-quick scheme. He’ll go home to Nigeria, steal his village’s revered war god statue and return to the Big Apple, where he can sell the icon to a gallery called Foreign Gods, Inc., run by an unpleasant gent who specializes in esoteric religious items. Like so many best-laid plans, this one goes very, very awry. Ike discovers that his mother and sister have been gulled by a shady evangelist; his old friend seems to be living off crookedly obtained money and his former love is a miserable mother suffering extreme poverty. As an amateur thief, Ike is prey to shaky nerves and other debilitating handicaps. Worst of all, Ngene, the stolen war god, is seeking revenge. All doesn’t end well, but this cabbie takes us for a helluva ride.

Why you’ll like it:

The characters are compelling — Ike’s ex-wife alone is worth the price of admission. The language is evocative and illuminating – as I said in my review in The Courant: “Ndibe makes lavish use of Nigerian idioms, and while their meaning can be ascertained through their context, an author’s note or glossary would have been very welcome. Still, the delightful phrase “blows grammar” — tries to impress listeners by using big, complicated words where simpler ones would do —- is one of many wonderfully colorful expressions that enliven the tale.”

The plot is lively, though less so in the book’s middle. And the karma dished out by that kidnapped god statue will leave you shivering. We’ve all seen those phony financial deal emails supposedly sent by Nigerian princes. Well, here is a novel whose Nigerian hero sadly manages to scam himself. The book is both laugh-out-loud hilarious and deeply sad. It’s a story you will not soon forget.

What others are saying:

Booklist says: “Ike, a Nigerian immigrant, hasn’t been able to make it in America. Driving a taxi, divorced, and broke, he continues to look for an angle and thinks he may have found it in an article about an art gallery that buys icons of foreign deities. He returns to his village in Nigeria in search of art but finds his family caught up on both sides of a religious war between Christianity and native beliefs revolving around the god Ngene. This is a heist story unlike any other, and at the center of it is a web of family obligations, cultural history, and greed. The self-destructive Ike, palpably conflicted and ready to place the blame for his lot anywhere but on himself, is a compelling character who attempts to come home again. Novelist Ndibe unfurls his rich narrative ­gradually, allowing room for plenty of character interaction while painting a revealing portrait of contemporary Nigeria. With piercing psychological insight and biting commentary on the challenges faced by immigrants, the novel is as full-blooded and fierce as the war deity who drives the story.”

In The New York Times. Janet Maslin writes: “razor-sharp…astute and gripping…Mr. Ndibe invests his story with enough dark comedy to make [the Nigerian war idol] Ngene an odoriferous presence in his own right, and certainly not the kind of polite exotic rarity that art collectors are used to. At one point, the novel compares him to the demonic Baal, and Ngene shows many signs of wishing to live up to that reputation. In Mr. Ndibe’s agile hands, he’s both a source of satire and an embodiment of pure terror.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “In Nigerian-born Ndibe’s (Arrows of Rain) new novel, Ikechukwu “Ike” Uzondu is a hapless N.Y.C. taxi driver stymied at every turn—his rent is past due, his Amherst education means less to potential employers than his accent, his green-card marriage has more than its share of baggage, and his fares always mispronounce his name (that’s “Ee-kay”). Desperate to keep his head above water in a country that only accepts him as a caricature, Ike decides to travel back to his village in Nigeria, steal his village’s ancestral war idol, and sell it to an unscrupulous dealer in tribal antiques. Many novels would merely use this premise as an excuse for madcap postcolonial allegory, but the theft turns out to be the setup for the novel’s centerpiece: Ike’s return to the village of Utonki, where he finds his family torn between a maniacal Christian pastor and the traditional worshippers of Ngene, the god Ike has resolved to pillage. Neither fable nor melodrama, nor what’s crudely niched as “world literature,” the novel traces the story of a painstakingly-crafted protagonist and his community caught up in the inescapable allure of success defined in Western terms.”

In its starred review, Kirkus says: “A Nigerian living in America has a moneymaking scheme–to return to his native village, steal the statue of a war god and sell it to a tony New York dealer who deals in such deities. Ikechukwu Uzondu (or Ike for short) has high expectations. Although he’s a cum laude graduate of Amherst with a degree in economics, he’s working as a New York cabbie because his accent won’t get him in the door at a Wall Street firm. Recently divorced and hounded by creditors . . . Ike borrows some money from a friend to purchase a ticket back to his home village of Utonki and carefully lays the groundwork for stealing a statue of Ngene, the village war god still worshiped by Ike’s uncle Osuakwu. . . . Ndibe writes of culture clash in a moving way that makes Ike’s march toward disaster inexorable and ineffably sad.”

Library Journal says:  “Ikechukwu Uzondu, a Nigerian cabbie working in Manhattan, is addicted to gambling and alcohol, with a hefty dose of self-pity thrown in. Though he holds a degree in economics from Amherst College, we’re asked to believe that it’s only his accent that keeps him from landing acceptable employment. Ike ignores bills and avoids the plaintive emails from his sister back in the village of Utonki. Since his ill-considered marriage imploded, Ike has been unable to send funds home, leaving him feeling guilty and angry. But he has a scheme. He’ll steal the statue of Ngene, a warrior god that has protected his people in Utonki for hundreds of years, and sell it to the officious Mark Gruels, curator of Foreign Gods, Inc., a gallery that caters to wealthy collectors who will pay small fortunes to display their liberal tastes. Not until Ike’s week back in Nigeria, where he tussles with corrupt customs officers, battles a hypocritical missionary for his mother’s soul, and visits a school friend whose gauche mansion was built with dirty money, does the author’s biting humor surface, but it’s more bitter than sweet. VERDICT Ndibe (Arrows of Rain) offers a jaundiced view of the immigrant experience in Ike, who won’t assimilate to his adopted country but can’t return home either. Ike’s overwhelming sense of loss and alienation results in a bleak portrait of a broken man. A difficult read indeed.”

My review in The Courant says: “How much is a god worth, metaphysically, morally or, in the case of Ngene, a Nigerian village war god embodied in a wooden idol, materially?

“That is the question haunting Ikechukwu Uzondo, a Nigerian cab driver in New York City who is the protagonist of Okey Ndibe’s second novel, “Foreign Gods, Inc.” (Soho Press, $25). It’s a frequently bitter yet often humorous account of a frustrated immigrant whose American dream becomes a nightmare.

“Ike, as he is known – that’s “Ee-kay,” not Ike as in Eisenhower, as he often has to point out — has earned a degree in economics from Amherst College that he believed would lead to respect and riches. But his hopes go unfulfilled because, he believes, his impenetrable Nigerian accent puts off American job interviewers. What he does not take into account is his prickly personality and the gambling and drinking that sap his opportunities.

Then there is his inability to stand up to his former wife, the sex-mad, foul-mouthed Bernita, a force of ill nature for whom words such as harridan and harpy were coined. Bernita, aka Queen B, drives Ike deep into debt and humiliates him with infidelity. . . .

“As Ike’s quest begins, Ndibe introduces readers to piquant characters and village life in a country with one foot in the rampant bribery of corrupt capitalism and the other planted in the primitive past. He also explores the conflict between Christianity and native religions. Christianity gets the worst of it, represented by a long-ago white Anglican evangelist who seized souls for Christ by haranguing and bullying the villagers, and present-day Pastor Uka, a charlatan who bilks the gullible with the guile and greed of the worst TV preachers. The followers of Ngene, though their worship involves remarkably bawdy prayers, seem far more genuine in their piety. . . . The vivid, if cartoonish, characters are the best, yet in a way least satisfying part of the book, because they intrigue the reader momentarily and then fade into the background. Bernita her bad self is worth an entire novel. The story also is slowed down by repetitious scenes and near-obsessive imagery of sweating, engendered by climate and fear, which appears in trickles, rivulets and torrents throughout the story. . . .

“Ike carries out his plan, with results that shock him but not the reader, who roots for this earnest, if flawed, man but in the end can only feel pity. There’s more than a touch of Poe, or perhaps “The Twilight Zone,” in the surreal conclusion of this story.

Ngene, it turns out, is far more powerful and vengeful than Ike ever imagined. And he would have done well to study not just economics, but Euripedes, the ancient Greek dramatist who pointed out that “whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”


When is it available?

This caustic yet touching book is now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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