With his 2003 novel GraceLand, Chris Abani fashioned an indelible portrait of a Nigerian teenage boy enamored of American culture who responded to family crises and government repression the only way he knew how: by becoming an Elvis impersonator.
Abani’s follow-up, the 2006 novella Becoming Abigail, told a horrifying tale of a Nigerian girl scarred by the death of her mother who seeks refuge from sexual violence in London, where her own family attempts to sell her into prostitution.
And in The Virgin of Flames, the Nigerian-born novelist — who’s also a poet with a new collection, Hands Washing Water — sets another story of a protagonist coming to grips with his own identity in a multicultural milieu.
The setting is Los Angeles, and his hero is Black, a cross-dressing native Angeleno mural artist of Salvadoran and Nigerian parentage who’s haunted by visions of the Virgins of Fatima and Guadalupe, fixated on a transsexual Mexican stripper named Sweet Girl, and often visited in the City of Angels by the archangel Gabriel, who’s given to masquerading as a pigeon.
That may make it seem that Abani — a professor at the University of California, Riverside, who has been imprisoned and tortured by the Nigerian government, and who played his saxophone on the Santa Monica pier for tips when he first moved to L.A. in 1999 — has gotten altogether too kooky.
And he may well have: I haven’t even mentioned Black’s best friend Iggy, the beautiful shaven-headed fakir-psychic who owns the East L.A. coffee shop the Ugly Store, over which Black resides (and where he keeps a nonflying spaceship on the roof), and who puts herself in a trance by hanging from the ceiling by the metal rings embedded in her back.
To be sure, The Virgin of Flames has its weaknesses — from a sketchy plot to a fantastical set-piece ending in which objects fall out of the sky, owing a little too much to Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie Magnolia.
And yet, for all its lack of forward momentum and stilted dialogue, The Virgin of Flames is full of passages of lyrical beauty that render the cultural melange of modern-day Los Angeles with openhearted grace.
Abani communicates a deep empathy for Black, and for Los Angeles. Black contends that the city reveals itself differently to each individual, just as a sax player such as Charlie Parker or Grover Washington Jr. would uniquely interpret “Lover Man” to make it his own.
For Black, Los Angeles “wasn’t Beverly Hills, or the movies, or Rodeo Drive … it was in the angle of the light caught in the trickle of the Los Angeles River as it curved under one of the beautiful old crumbling bridges of East L.A. The way the painting of an angel wearing sandals and jeans, its once white wings stained by exhaust soot and tag signs … curved into flight if you took the corner of the on-ramp at speed. In the cacophony of color and shapes in the huge pinata stores on Olympic, near Central; and the man pulling the purple wooden life-size donkey mounted on wheels down Cesar Chavez, wearing a nonchalant expression as if it was the most normal thing in the world …”
Abani writes like a poet because he is one, as he reveals in the elegance that’s apparent from “Virgin’s first page, where the Los Angeles River “iridescent in its concrete sleeve” is “losing faith with every inch traveled.”
He has more patience than his readers might for his self-pitying hero, who works on several murals in The Virgin of Flames, including one called “American Gothic: The Remix” that consists of ethnically offensive jokes copied from L.A. bathroom stalls spliced together with lines from Wallace Stevens poems. But Abani’s luminous language commands attention even when his story line doesn’t.
Hands Washing Water concisely explores similar themes, including cross-dressing, in a 12-part epistolary poem called “Buffalo Women,” about a black female soldier who serves in the Union army in the Civil War disguised as a man.
Hands travels all over the world — from the pyramids to the Muir Woods — as Abani seeks evidence to refute the common conclusion that “the sacred is dead.” Sometimes, as in his novels, he takes risks and falls on his face, as in “The Cleft in the Infinite,” which consists of a semicolon and colon, but no actual words.
Sometimes, though, he finds what he’s looking for, in the faces of Madonnas in a cathedral in Antwerp, or in Durban, South Africa, where he hears the sound of love, which “hums like tuning forks,” even in a place where “people carry their dead with them, plastering them onto every met face.” Times like that are simply, as he puts it in “Unfinished Symphony,” “enough.” For him, and for us.