Foreign Gods, Inc. is the latest novel by Nigerian author Okey Ndibe. Here’s a brief overview and review.
Overview: a life of unrequited promise
The protagonist in the book is a Nigerian man named Ikechukwu Uzondo, Ike for short. As an immigrant in NYC, Ike has lived a life of unrequited promise. He’s done what was required to attain a cushy, comfortable life. He’s academically brilliant. He went to Amherst College and earned an honors degree in economics. Despite his qualifications, he can’t land a job. In the interim, he’s been a cab driver for the last 13 years, languishing in a fate of mediocrity, desperately looking for a way out. This is a fate that should not have befallen a man of Ike’s caliber and intellect.
Ike marries a woman for a green card. He has a gambling problem that sees him going into debt. He has a drinking problem. To make matters worse, his thick Nigerian accent is holding him back. Like Lemony Snicket, life has been a series of unfortunate events for Ike. He hasn’t caught a break for a very long time.
Desperate, broke, down on his luck and feeling like he had no other options, Ike comes up with the idea of stealing a deity from his village in Nigeria called Ngene. Ngene is a god of war. The book opens with a seemingly nervous and tense Ike approaching an art gallery in NYC that deals in the selling of things of the nature that Ike plans to steal.
It’s certainly brazen to walk into a gallery to propose selling a statue of a deity, without the actual statue of the deity in hand, which is what Ike does. Ike is first greeted by receptionist who says she recognises his accent and that he had called before. The word ‘accent’ perturbs him, because he is self-conscious about his accent and feels like it is holding him back. He eventually speaks to the gallery owner, a man named Mark Gruels. Ike pitches the idea of selling him a god, to which Mark is interested and asks to see it. Ike say he had to travel to get it, to which Mark quips “I don’t buy stories, I buy things.” Ike insists it’s real and mentions that his uncle who happens to be the deity’s chief priest told him stories about the power of the Ngene. Suspicious about it, Mike asks if he has his uncle’s permission to sell the statue or if he’s acting as some sort of agent for his chief priest of an uncle. Ike replies that he doesn’t have his permission, then asks how much he can get for the statue. Mike tells him they will discuss prices when he returns with Ngene.
That brief early exchange shines a light on the mindset of Ike and what drives him. It sets the tone of the narrative, a narrative driven by greed at all costs.
How far would you go for success?
Not only is this a tale of a immigrant trying to survive in a place that seemingly always puts an obstacle in the path of his success, it also paints a picture of greed, not just on Ike, but on all of us. We tend to view success as an accumulation of material wealth. Obviously, the picture painted here is that someone like Ike is far better than what he does for a living, driving a cab. Ike’s drive and zeal for material wealth from the sale of Ngene causes him to lose perspective. He thinks he can steal without consequences. All that matters to him is money, and Ngene becomes a means to an end for his greed.
Indeed, we do feel sympathy and sorrow for Ike, how could you not feel bad for a man who had no other recourse but to drive a cab for 13 years? However, as he becomes blinded by greed, everything unravels and what we see is a man on a path of self-destruction, spurred on by a lust for money, which was initially out of desperation, but eventually became a man trying to get the most out of a heist.
Okey Ndibe has woven a narrative that is human and relatable, especially to people who are immigrants. Ike Uzondo is Nigerian, but this is an immigrant’s story. I have spoken to many cab drivers from different parts of the world, and a sizeable chunk of them are very well educated people. They just can’t catch a break for a myriad of reasons, from their education credits and degrees not transferring over to xenophobia that prevents them from finding employment commensurate to their skills and education.
As I read this book, I kept wondering about all the cab drivers I have met that are similar to Ike. Many have graduate degrees, but are forced to do what they can to survive. Ndibe’s fine work here is refreshingly human. We are all capable of doing unscrupulous things to attain material wealth. I asked Ndibe is he saw himself in Ike. The truth of the matter is that there is a little bit of Ike in all of us. We all want success, and some of us will steal for it.