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From a disciple of the late Chinua Achebe comes a masterful and universally acclaimed novel that is at once a taut, literary thriller and an indictment of greed's power to subsume all things, including the sacred.Foreign Gods, Inc., tells the story of Ike, a New York-based Nigerian cab driver who sets out to steal the statue of an ancient war deity from his home village and sell it to a New York gallery. Ike's plan is fueled by desperation. Despite a degree in economics from a major American college, his strong accent has barred him from the corporate world. Forced to eke out a living as a cab driver, he is unable to manage the emotional and material needs of a temperamental African American bride and a widowed mother demanding financial support. When he turns to gambling, his mounting losses compound his woes.And so he travels back to Nigeria to steal the statue, where he has to deal with old friends, family, and a mounting conflict between those in the village who worship the deity, and those who practice Christianity. A meditation on the dreams, promises and frustrations of the immigrant life in America; the nature and impact of religious conflicts; an examination of the ways in which modern culture creates or heightens infatuation with the "exotic," including the desire to own strange objects and hanker after ineffable illusions; and an exploration of the shifting nature of memory, Foreign Gods is a brilliant work of fiction that illuminates our globally interconnected world like no other.From the Hardcover edition.
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Ikechukwu Uzondu, “Ike for short,” parked his Lincoln Continental cab at a garage that charged twelve dollars per hour. Before shutting off the engine, he looked at the car’s electronic clock. Nine forty-seven a.m.; it meant the gallery would have been open for a little less than an hour. Perfect, Ike thought, for he wished to be done transacting his business before the place started buzzing.
He walked a block and a half to 19 Vance Street. Had a small animal been wedged in his throat, his heart could not have pounded more violently.
The eave over the door bore a sign etched in black over a bluish background: foreign gods, incorporated. It was written in tiny, stylized lettering, as if intended to create a tactful anonymity. Few would stumble upon a store like this; it would be found, it seemed, only by habitués and devotees.
Across the street was a bar. Ike contemplated a quick drink or two to calm his nerves. How odd to flack for a war god while jittery.
Yet, to go in smelling of alcohol might also be a costly mistake.
The gallery door clicked, and a tanned woman walked out. A squat carved statue was clutched close to her breast, held in asuckling posture. At the curb, a gleaming black BMW pulled up. She opened the rear door and leaned in, arched backside revealing the outline of her underwear. Her black high-heeled shoes were riveted with nodes of diamond. She strapped the deity in place with the seat belt and then straightened. The car’s front door was opened from inside. She lowered herself in, and the car sped off.
Ike pulled at the gallery door—surprisingly light. A wide, sprawling space unfurled itself: gray marble floors, turquoise walls, and glass-paneled showcases. A multitude of soft, recessed lights accentuated the gallery’s dim, spectral atmosphere. In the middle of the room, slightly to the left of the door, a spiral staircase with two grille-work banisters rose to an upper floor. Ike knew from the New York magazine piece that people went upstairs only by invitation. And that those invitations went only to a small circle of long-term collectors or their designated dealers.
There was an otherworldly chill in the air. There was also a smell about the place, unsettling and hard to name. Ike froze at the edge of the run of stairs that led down to the floor of the gallery. From the elevation, he commanded a view. The space was busy but not cluttered. Clusters of short, squat showcases were interspersed with long and deep ones. Here and there, some customers peered into the glass cases or pored over catalogs.
In a matter of two, three weeks, his people’s ancient deity, Ngene, would be here, too. And it would enjoy pride of place, not on this floor, with the all-comers and nondescripts, but upstairs, in the section called Heaven. Ngene was a majestic god with a rich legend and history. How many other gods could boast of dooming Walter Stanton, that famed English missionary whose name, in the syllable-stretching mouths of the people of Utonki, became Su-tantee-ny?
The thought gave him a gutsy boost. He trotted down the steps to the floor of the gallery. Walking unhurriedly, he cast deliberate glances about him, so that an observer might mistake him for a veteran player in the rare sport where gods and sacred curios were bought and sold. He paused near the spiral staircase. A sign warned please do not ascend unless escorted. He walked on to a chesthigh showcase. A hefty wooden head stared at him from atop a rectangular stump. The face was pitched forward, like a tortoise’s head poking out of a shell. On closer inspection, Ike saw that the carved head was deformed by a chipped, flattened nose and large, bulgy eyes. Inside the case, four fluorescent puck lights washed the statue with crisscross patterns of luminescence and shadows. A fork-tongued serpent coiled itself round the statue’s neck.
There was an electronic key code for the showcase’s twin-winged door, and several perforations in the glass, small and circular, as if designed to let in and let out just enough air to keep the glum, rigid statue from suffocating. A strip tag glued to the glass cage identified the deity as C1760. Ike picked up a glossy catalog and thumbed to the C section. Each page was columned, with sections marked “inventory code,” “name,” “brief history,” and “price.” He ran his finger down the line until he saw the tag number. Then he drew his finger across to the price column: $29,655.
He flipped the pages to the catalog’s last section, marked “Heavenly Inventory.” The lowest price in the section was $171,455; the highest $1.13 million. He studied the image of one of the deities in that section. Carved from soot-black wood, it had two fused figures, one female, and the other male. The figures backed each other. The female was big breasted and boasted a swollen belly. The male figure held a hoe in one hand, a gun in the other, its grotesque phallus extending all the way to its feet. They shared the same androgynous head, turned neither left nor right but forward. A pair of deep-set eyes seemed to return Ike’s stare. It was listed for $325,630. Ike read the short italicized description: A god of the crossroads, originally from Papua New Guinea.
“Wait until they see Ngene,” he said under his breath, a flush of excitement washing over him. Surely, a legendary god of war would command a higher price than a two-faced crossroads idler.
At the thought, the catalog slipped from his hands and thudded on the floor. He hastily picked it up, glancing all around. Perhaps the gallery’s surveillance camera was beamed on him, trailing his every movement?
He moved to another showcase. He squatted, bit his lip, and peered intensely at the encased quarry, nodding like a connoisseur. From nowhere some foul whiff brushed his nose and he recoiled.
He heard a woman’s low voice and stood to look, but two showcases blocked his view.
“Have I ever—ever—been too busy for you?” a man answered in a stentorian voice.
A pair of sequined magenta shoes descended the staircase. These yielded toned calves, then sturdy thighs that disappeared beneath a tight purplish skirt, and then the tanned, tight upper body of a blonde. Then, behind her, the man appeared.
Ike recognized Mark Gruels, the owner of the gallery. He did not panic, his poise a remarkable feat, considering what was at stake. Neither the woman nor Gruels looked Ike’s way. Her right arm was around his waist, his left arm draped over her shoulder. They circled the staircase and walked down another aisle, toward the far wall.
Ike watched them but pretended to be riveted by the catalog. Gruels was a head taller than the woman, even though she looked at least five nine. Cerise pearls adorned the woman’s neck. Gruels’s groomed appearance seemed to leave some room for cultivated ruggedness. He had a full head of black hair, garnished with dots of gray. He wore a dark green down vest over a bleached green shirt, one sleeve rolled up to the elbow, the other left unrolled.
Gruels and the woman spoke inaudibly for a moment, entranced by the same object: a mammoth, snout-faced statue in a showcase.
“So?” the woman finally asked.
Gruels swayed side to side, as if in deep thought. Then he shook his head doubtfully.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Not that one,” he said in the tone of a man accustomed to confident judgments. His voice was deep, even a little gravelly. “You’re looking at a goddess. She’s definitely not a good fit. Not for you. You do better with strong male gods. You’d find her—shall I say—a bit too feisty. Too cranky.”
“She’s quite the cutie,” the woman said, leaning into Gruels.
“No question, but she’s not your type. Trust me.” He pressed her closer to him. “You don’t want a goddess that clashes with your personality. Plus, it doesn’t jibe with your other acquisitions.”
“It’s actually not for me. I’d like something amazing for my brother. And this should do.”
“Birthday?” Gruels asked.
“No, he’s never been big on birthdays. He’s just having a tough time rebounding.”
“Has he been sick?”
“Josh?” Gruels sounded incredulous.
“Yes, darling—you know I have only the one brother.”
“He and Heather parted ways?”
“Oh, Mark, have you been living in a cave again?”
“No, really,” said Gruels. “I’m sorry to hear it.”
She turned sideways and rested her body against his. Gruels rubbed and kneaded her shoulders. Ike felt a tug in the crotch.
She related how Heather had run away with another woman, leaving Josh crushed.
Finally, Gruels said, “A man dumped by his wife for another woman deserves some spectacular gift. You can’t get better than this.” He glanced up at the deity. “This, here, is a Mayan marvel.”
“And what are you asking for her?”
“Twenty thousand—eighteen thousand for you.”
“Sir, can I help you with anything?”
Ike turned, startled. A petite woman stood behind him.
“How may I help you?” she asked again.
Her nose was pierced midridge with a toothpick-sized coppery crossbar. Her head was shaved close to the scalp. A whorl of tattoos ran all over her arms and neck.
“I came to see—”
“Mark?” she interjected.
“Mr. Gruels,” he said. Despite all his years in America, he’d never become comfortable with the idea of calling strangers by their given name. “Yes.”
Her eyes lit up. “Did you call two days ago?”
“I recognized that accent!” Ike stiffened at the word “accent,” and his eyes blazed. Oblivious, she continued: “Listen, Mark’s busy with a customer right now. You can wait for him right here. Unless it’s something I can help you with. My name is Stacy.”
“I’ll wait,” he said, still vexed by that reference to his accent. He turned and nearly bumped into Gruels. The gallery owner held the blond with one hand, the Mayan deity with the other.
“Mark, this gentleman wants to see you,” Stacy announced.
Letting go of the blond’s hand, Gruels seemed to whirl round to Ike.
“You want to see me?”
Not in everybody’s presence, Ike thought. “I’ll wait until you finish. With her.” He pointed at the blond.
Gruels smirked and then retook the woman’s hand. “Until I finish with her? What makes you think I want to ever be finished with her?”
Gruels laughed, and the woman followed suit, her head thrown back. Gruels whispered into her ear, released her, and circled back to Ike. “Yes, I’m listening,” he said.
Ike’s tongue felt coated. Why didn’t Gruels invite him to an
office or some secluded corner?
Gruels folded his arms. “Yes?”
“Yes, you have what?”
“A business proposal.”
Gruels slapped both hands, bemused. “You want to invest in my business? Great! How much are we talking here?”
Ike gave a short, awkward chuckle.
“It’s a busy morning for me,” Gruels said. “Business proposal. You’ve got to spell out what you mean. And you’ve got to do it quick.” He glanced at his wristwatch. “I have a meeting to run to—in, like, now! So?”
“I have a god I can bring,” he said.
“You have a god?”
“Great. Let’s see it.”
“I’m traveling to bring it.”
“You don’t have it?”
“So what’s the point of this discussion?”
Ike swallowed hard. “I want you to buy it.”
“Buy what? I can’t buy what doesn’t exist.” Gruels glanced at Stacy, who tightened her lips and shrugged.
“It exists,” Ike cried, his voice close to combative. Then, checking
himself, he added, “It’s a powerful deity, too.”
Gruels regarded him with intense eyes. “I don’t buy stories; I buy things. You see what I mean?” He glanced at his watch again and turned sharply sideways, as if to walk away. Instead, he tarried and addressed Ike. “Bottom line, you have nothing to show me.”
“In less than three weeks, I will have it.”
“So why are we holding this discussion now? Why don’t we have it in three weeks—or whenever you’ve got something to show?”
Ike said, “It’s a god of war.”
“It could be a god of shit for all I care.” Gruels paused, his eyes danced, taking in Ike with curious interest. He put a left hand on Ike’s shoulder. “I don’t mean to insult you. That’s not what I’m about.”
“It used to lead our people to war,” Ike explained, determined to capitalize on the indirect apology.
“That’s great,” Gruels said, his tone flavored anew with sarcasm. “Great for your people.”
Thoughts tossed about in Ike’s mind. He foraged for the magic words that would kindle the other’s interest. He saw Gruels’s lips quiver, about to speak. Anxiety overcame him.
“Trust me,” he said. “It’s a very, very ancient deity. A very powerful god.”
“So you say. Great! Nobody ever sold me a shitty god. And nobody ever bought one from me. Every god I ever bought or sold had the greatest mojo in all of time. So, what’s new?” He took another look at his watch.
“How much are you willing to pay for it?"
Gruels scratched his forehead and then gazed at Ike, silent.
“Trust me,” Ike said, unable to bear the silent exchange of stares.
Praise for Foreign Gods, Inc.
A NPR Great Read of 2014
A Philadelphia Inquirer Best Book of 2014
The Root 15 Best Novels by a Black Author of 2014
A Cleveland Plain Dealer Best Books of 2014 Selection
"Razor-sharp . . . Mr. Ndibe invests his story with enough dark comedy to make Ngene an odoriferous presence in his own right, and certainly not the kind of polite exotic rarity that art collectors are used to . . . In Mr. Ndibe’s agile hands, he’s both a source of satire and an embodiment of pure terror."
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"Okey Ndibe's novel is dramatic and wonderfully detailed, and his prose is absolutely beautiful—he's a deeply generous writer with an excellent ear for dialogue."
—Michael Schaub, NPR
"A story of sweeping cultural insight and absurd comedy . . . rendered with a stoic power that moves the reader more than histrionics possibly could."
—The Washington Post
"Unforgettable . . . Ndibe seems to have a boundless ear fo' the lyrical turns of phrase of the working people of rural Nigeria . . . The wooden deity "has character, an audacious personality,' says one non-African who sees it. So does Ndibe's novel, a page-turning allegory about the globalized world."
—Los Angeles Times
"A hard look at the American dream, which seems to be receding further and further into the distance these days."
"This is precisely the kind of novel that makes one anti-social. If you find it today, sprint home, throw away your cellphone, bolt the front door and don’t worry too much if you are not up in time for church tomorrow."
—Daily Nation (Kenya)
"Captures the character of the intelligent yet deluded Ike, whose trip to Nigeria puts him face to face with the yawning need of nearly everyone he knows. And where there isn't need, there is greed."
“We clearly have a fresh talent at work here. It is quite a while since I sensed creative promise on this level.”
—Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
“An entertaining, witty adventure . . . Foreign Gods, Inc. is an intelligent, satirical novel that comes highly anticipated and does not disappoint.”
"A morality tale for our time . . . With subtle hints at moral turmoil, a gift for dark humour, and characterisation that is perceptive and neatly observed, Ndibe manages to persuade the reader to root for Ike, even as his haphazard plans begin to unravel."
—The Guardian (UK)
"Dazzling . . . It's already obvious that 2014 is going to be a big year for African novels . . . but Okey Ndibe is bound to set himself apart from the pack. Who doesn't want to read a novel about a good god heist?"
—The Guardian Africa Network
"Bitter, sweet, pulpy, and rich in flavor, Okey Ndibe's second novel Foreign Gods, Inc. reads like the uncracked innards of a strange fruit. Each sentence a carefully crafted, holistic expression of Ndibe's eloquence, smacks of a master at work."
—New York Daily News
"Brims with warmth, vibrancy and color . . . Just about perfect."
"A New York novel, an everyman immigrant story, and a moving page-turner wrapped into one."
"Ndibe is a writer’s writer, and this book is a lesson in the art of the novel."
—New York Journal of Books
"Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc is one of the most impressive African novels that I have read in years. Comic, sad—even tragic—Ndibe is a master craftsman, weaving his narrative with ethnic materials (and surprises) and a profundity that will startle you by the end of the story . . . Ikechukwu Uzondu’s journey into his past is as moving and frightful as Brutus Jones’ fate in Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece, The Emperor Jones. Clearly, this is one writer to watch. Moreover, his insights into both America and Nigeria will take your breath away."
—Charles R. Larson, CounterPunch
"A freshly and heartbreakingly recast tale of American immigration, with all its longings, disappointments, effacements and reclamations."
—The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"This original [novel] is packed with darkly humorous reflections on Africa’s obsession with the West, and the West’s obsession with all things exotic."
—Daily Mail (UK)
"A powerful novel . . . Foreign Gods, Inc. gives voice to the many talented people stranded, like Ike, between countries. All of us ought to be listening."
—The San Antonio Express-News
"Foreign Gods, Inc. reads like the narrative of a taxi-driving Faust in modern Nigeria and America. With Molière-like humorous debunking of religious hypocrisy and rancid materialism, it teems with characters and situations that make you laugh in order not to cry."
—Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, author of Wizard of the Crow
"Foreign Gods, Inc. is a blistering exploration of the contemporary African immigrant experience in America. Ndibe tackles tough questions: from the shifting notions of home and identity to the nature of greed. In prose which is fresh and often funny, Ndibe draws the reader into the heartbreaking story of Ike Uzondu's attempt to survive in a world which seems determined to crush him."
—Chika Unigwe, author of On Black Sisters Street
"The best-laid plans often go awry. But they can certainly make for an entertaining read."
—The New York Post
"Race, religion, greed, xenophobia—author Okey Ndibe tackles these sensitive topics and more in the heist novel to end all heist novels."
—Bruce Tierney, BookPage
"Ndibe writes of cultural clash in a moving way that makes Ike’s march toward disaster inexorable and ineffably sad."
—Kirkus Reviews, STARRED Review
"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."
—Publishers Weekly, STARRED Review
"A challenging romp of gods and styles."
—John Edgar Wideman, author of Philadelphia Fire
"If you’ve ever sat in the back of a cab silently—or not so silently—wondering where your cab driver is from and what his life is like (and really hasn’t everyone?) then you will be captivated by Nigerian writer Okey Ndibe’s new novel."
—Metro New York
"Unsuppressible, Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc. is a splendid work of art that belongs in every reader’s collection. In a masterful manner, Ndibe manages to blend the traditional belief of his Igbo ethnic group in Nigeria with the challenges that face many young and ambitious African immigrants in the USA. The social benefit of the book is immense."
"Foreign Gods, Inc. leaves readers with this warning: be mindful about the powers you serve, and careful about the ones you seek to cross."
"Ndibe writes with a folksy inclusiveness. The village humor, the greetings and teasing, lend the Utonki sequences a lyrical magic . . . Into this richly stocked brew of characters, Ndibe skillfully introduces suspense in the final stretch, guiding readers through the tension of getting through customs Nigerian-style . . . As an author with a foot in Nigeria and the U.S., he expertly brings both worlds to life."
"Wonderfully colorful . . . There's more than a touch of Poe, or perhaps The Twilight Zone, in the surreal conclusion of this story."
—The Hartford Courant
"[A] lyrical, heavy-hitting tale."
"This is a heist story like no other . . . 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."
"On the surface, Foreign Gods, Inc. is a heist book about a Nigerian cab driver in New York trying to steal an ancient statue from his village in Nigeria. But Okey Ndibe’s novel delivers far more than that description suggests, tackling everything from tradition to trying to make it in America, and the way Western countries view the rest of the world."
—Jason Diamond, Flavorwire
"A close associate of the late, great Chinua Achebe, Okey Ndibe adds his voice to a new generation of writers . . . Foreign Gods, Inc. features New York-based Nigerian Ike . . . [whose] picaresque journey, gently but incisively told, shows us the vagaries of both American and Africa culture."
—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
"A landmark in a promising novelistic career."
—San Francisco Book Review
"Ndibe’s novel takes on serious themes of cultural exchange, but it does so in a decidedly comic fashion. All the characters Ike encounters, in New York and in Nigeria, inject their own brands of humor into the story."
“Ndibe takes his readers on a transfixing and revelatory journey from bitter bad faith to hard won, deeply moving and adult redemption.”
—Francisco Goldman, author of Say Her Name
"A testament to Ndibe's talent and a reason to put him on the list of authors to keep on your radar."
—Out of the Gutter
From the Hardcover edition.
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