Every morning Elvis Oke runs through the same routine. The bookish 16-year-old Nigerian hops a Lagos bus to the private beaches inhabited by pasty white foreigners. There, he powders himself with talc, dons a wig and something resembling a jumpsuit, and belts out an a capella version of "Hound Dog" while gyrating his hips in the sand. Needless to say, this does not prove a very lucrative line of work.
That's the comically grim opening scenario of Chris Abani's first novel, Graceland. Yet from there, Elvis's life only spirals downward. He takes a job working construction and quickly gets fired. He then secures a nightclub gig dancing with wealthy Indian and Lebanese women, but runs afoul of an army colonel who nearly kills him. Desperate for money, Elvis finally ends up entangled in a brutally violent crime underworld for which he is ridiculously ill-equipped.
Graceland traces Elvis's life by jumping back and forth between his hellish existence in Lagos and his almost equally brutal childhood in Afikpo, a village roughly 800 miles to the east. No matter where he's living, the dismal backdrop is the same: rape, alcoholism, incest, poverty, violence. Elvis seeks refuge in books, movies, dance, and the memory of his mother, who died of cancer when he was seven years old.
Abani's significant achievement is his unflinching portrait of Lagos, a teeming city of millions where lives are disposed of like downer cows and then left to rot in the baking heat. The city is lorded over by vicious soldiers who kill on a whim without fear of punishment. Mobs routinely hunt down suspected thieves, douse them in gasoline, and set them on fire. Elvis lives with his unemployed, alcoholic father in a swampland slum where even a trip to the local watering hole is tinged with danger:
[Elvis] walked over to Madam Caro's Bar and Restaurant, a rather grandiloquent name for the shaky wood-and-zinc shack perched on the edge of a walkway, hanging over the swamp. Regulars often had to be fished out by the teenagers hanging around. Of course, there was an exorbitant charge, but when you were drowning it didn't matter.
Gracelandfrequently drowns the novel's compelling setup in a swamp of its own. Abani's dialogue is sometimes dreadful: His characters, particularly the King of the Beggars--a homeless musician who is transformed into a radical martyr by book's end--are prone to grandiose speeches that seem ripped from political tracts. Things fall apart completely in the last 50 pages as Abani attempts to cobble together a resolution to the apocalyptic events that he's set into motion. Graceland, somewhat like Lagos, becomes a sprawling mess.