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Graceland (2004)

by Chris Abani

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474945,061 (3.76)31
Graceland is a dazzling debut by a singular new talent The sprawling, swampy, cacophonous city of Lagos, Nigeria, provides the backdrop to the story of Elvis, a teenage Elvis impersonator hoping to make his way out of the ghetto. Broke, beset by floods, and beatings by his alcoholic father, and with no job opportunities in sight, Elvis is tempted by a life of crime. Thus begins his odyssey into the dangerous underworld of Lagos, guided by his friend Redemption and accompanied by a restless hybrid of voices including The King of Beggars, Sunday, Innocent and Comfort. Ultimately, young Elvis, drenched in reggae and jazz, and besotted with American film heroes and images, must find his way to a GraceLand of his own. Nuanced, lyrical, and pitch perfect, Abani has created a remarkable story of a son and his father, and an examination of postcolonial Nigeria where the trappings of American culture reign supreme. "A richly detailed, poignant, and utterly fascinating look into another culture and how it is cross-pollinated by our own. It brings to mind the work of Ha Jin in its power and revelation of the new."--T. Coraghessan Boyle… (more)
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"the rest of the night was a restless one for elvis. To start with, his room was leaking: not tame drip-drops but a steady stream of water that filled the bucket placed in the middle of the floor in a few minutes. He gave up trying to empty it, and as it overflowed, he settled down and prepared to be flooded out. It wouldn't be the first time. The steady dribble of water provided a soothing background to fall asleep to.
Just as his first snore broke through, he was woken by steady splashes in the water. Rats swimming in the flooded room. One clambered up the iron leg of the bed and onto his foot. He lashed out, sending the rat flying across the room to crash with a sickening thud into the opposite wall. There was a dull plop as its lifeless body fell into the water that had overflowed from the bucket and coated the floor in a pool.
Elvis finally settled into an uneasy sleep, dreaming he was drowning in a rat-infested lake and every time he tried to swim to safety, the rats would drag him back under the waves. He struggled and sputtered but couldn't get away from them.
he woke with a start to find himself lying in the water on the floor, staring into the Bright eyes of a rat that was using one of his sandals as a raft to float around the room."

"Pensive on the bus ride home, Elvis did not pay too much attention to the cars that in spite of their speed wove between each other like the careful threads of a tapestry. The motorways were the only means of getting across the series of towns that made up lagos. Intent on reaching their own destinations, pedestrians dodged between the speeding vehicles as they crossed the wide motorways. It was dangerous, and every day at least 10 people were killed trying to cross the road. If they didn't die when the first car hit them, subsequent cars finished the job. The curious thing, though, was that there were hundreds of overhead pedestrian bridges, but people ignored them. Some even walked up to the bridges and then crossed underneath them.
..
Outside, the road was littered with dead bodies at regular intervals. 'At least take away the bodies,' he muttered to himself.
'Dey cannot,' the man interjected into his thoughts. 'Dis stupid government place a fine on dying by crossing road illegally. So de relatives can only take de body when dey pay de fine.' "

Elvis can't make enough money dancing, so his friend redemption tries to hook him up with the means to make some extra money. They go to a nightclub, and arrange to be escorts for the evening for young women who are the daughters of rich men.
" 'elvis, this is rohini. Rohini, elvis.'
Her twin-dimpled smile was pearl white and excited elvis. To her left stood her silent, towering golem, a eunuch her father employed to chaperone his daughter. He bared teeth in a snarl at Elvis's approach.
'relax, prakash,' redemption said.
Rohini was upanishad tagore's eldest daughter. Upanishad, a shrewd businessman, had inherited a couple of medium-sized provision shops from his father, davinder singh tagore. Tagore senior had come to Nigeria in 1912 to help build the railways, and stayed on. With an uncanny head for business, upanishad had turned those two shops into 15 huge department stores scattered all over the country. They sold everything from dry cell batteries, Swiss army knives, groceries and toys to cars and tractors.
'Hello,' Elvis said. 'Would you care to dance?'
Prakash laid his big hand on Elvis's shoulder in warning. Redemption picked it off and turned to him.
'If you lay your hand on my friend again, I go take you outside and give you de beating of your life, you bastard.'
Prakash hesitated. Redemption had a mean reputation, and this club did attract a lot of local gangsters - disgruntled, angry Men who would jump at the chance to work over a much-hated indian. Prakash backed off."

Now redemption has another way for Elvis to earn money. He asks him to help him wrap up packages of cocaine:
" 'good. Now see how I do it. You take dis small spoon and you measure one - not full, okay? Den you empty it into de fingers of dis glove. One by one, one by one. Dat is one spoonful per finger. Okay, see?'
Elvis watched redemption measure and deposit 5 spoonfuls into the five fingers of the glove.
'Next you cut it like dis, 1 inch above the powder, and only one at a time. Den you tie each packet closed, tight, tight like dis. Make sure you finish one packet before you cut de next, okay?'
Elvis nodded as redemption Tied a series of knots that would have made Baden-Powell happy to know that his work in bringing the boy scouts to Africa had not been wasted.
'Den you take each tied packet and roll it like dis, hitting it with dis small Hammer like dis, so dat de powder is packed tight, okay? Den you put it inside dis condom like dis and tie it closed, cut, and again use the hammer like this, see? Then you put it inside this small plastic bag like so, then again use de hammer, see? Den take this black electrician's tape, cut it like dis and wrap it around and around and around at least 12 times, see? Den use de hammer again, see?'
Elvis could hardly believe it; the packet looked like a small pellet, no bigger than the sample. Redemption bounced it a few times on the coffee table.
'See? It is strong. Next you put de five packets inside de fingers of a another glove and cut and tie, den it is ready. You see dat de glove is de kind used by doctor? Dat's because it is strong but light, you see?.. '
...
'why did we have to tie those packets so securely? How will people who buy them open them?'
'Dey are for export; to States. A courier will swallow dem. Depend on de person capacity dey fit to swallow between 200 and 400. Dat's around 2 to 4 kilos. Dat's why we packed dem like dat. So dey don't burst in de stomach, and de last glove make it easy to swallow. Ah, here's my cab.' "

Throughout the book there are recipes from Elvis's mother's diary. If I ate animals, I guess they would look good. However, Elvis never remembers his mother cooking. The closest to a recipe that looks good is this one:
fried yam, plantain and beef stew. (I would substitute the cubed beef with gardein's beaf:
ingredients:
yam
plantains
vegetable oil
cubed beef
diced onion
curry powder
fresh bonnet peppers
salt
a tin of chopped tomatoes
sugar
preparation:
first, peel the yam and plantains and slice them into thin slivers. Next, wash yam and plantain slivers and pat dry with paper towel. Put two dessert spoons of oil into a frying pan and bring it to heat, and then add the yam and plantain slivers. Fry until crisp. Leave to drain on a large plate with a paper towel.
Put the beef to cook. When tender remove from flame. In a deep pot, bring two dessert spoons of vegetable oil to heat. Add the onions, curry powder, fresh Bonnet peppers, salt and the tomatoes. Leave on a low flame to reduce. Put in a pinch of salt. When the tomatoes have reduced, put a pinch of sugar in to take away the acidity. Pour in the stock from the beef, stir in the meat and leave to cook for 30 minutes. Arrange the yam and plantain slivers in a nice pattern and drizzle the stew over it."

One last time, redemption tries to help all this make money. But this time, it's just too much for Elvis calling
"American hospitals do plenty organ transplant. But dey are not always finding de parts on time to save people life. So certain people in Saudi Arabia and such a place used to buy organ parts and sell to rich white people so dey can save their children or wife or demselves.'
'they can't do that!'
'dis world operate different way for different people. Anyway, de rich Whites buy de spare parts from the Arabs who buy from wherever they can. Before dey used to buy only from Sudan and such a place, but de war and tings is make it hard, so dey expand de operation. People like de colonel use their position to get human parts as you see and then freeze it. If we had cross de border yesterday, airplane for carry dose parts to Saudi hospital so dat dey can be sold.
...
'How much?'
'it depend on de part. Human head fetch $10,000.'
'but there is no head transplant surgery.'
Redemption laughed. 'Elvis, eh! Dey can use de eyes and also something dey call stem cell. Anyway, heart is also 10,000. De oders, like kidney, are like 3 to $10,000. It is big money for de Colonel.'
'so if we sell them to the Saudis at 10,000, how much do they sell at?'
'Dat depend. If your only son dey die, how much you go pay for spare part for him?' 'anything, I guess.'
'dats right.'
finally, redemption said it. 'You no go ask about de children we carry?'
'I was afraid to.'
'Well, as I hear, dere is too much damage to de organ as de colonel harvest dem. Also, not all survive de journey. So many of de parts are thrown away.'
'oh my god!'
'yes, dose children will arrive in Saudi alive, den, depend on de demand, dey will harvest de parts from dem. Fresh, no damage, more money for all of dem.'
'and none of the Americans ask questions about where the organs come from?'
'like I said, if your only child dey die, you go ask question?'
'how could you get us involved, knowing all this? We are as bad as the colonel and the saudis.'
'no forget de whites who create de demand.'
'Them too. But how could you do this to me and claim to be my friend?' "

I love the character of elvis. He had such a hard life, losing his mother to cancer when he was 8, having an alcoholic father, having a stepmother who cared nothing from him. Living in a house that swam with rats in a rainstorm. Sometimes this book had laugh out loud moments, literally. But it had a very sad ending.


( )
  burritapal | Oct 23, 2022 |
GraceLand follows the exploits of a young boy named Elvis as he makes his daily way through the slums of Lagos, Nigeria. The story of his and his family's earlier years in a small town are also told through flashback. The storytelling here is very good, indeed. The scenes of street life and the lives and attitudes of characters we meet are rendered compellingly. There is more than a touch of Huck Finn in this book, although the violence and poverty are more starkly portrayed. If the protagonist is just a touch too clever and erudite to be believed for his age and social station, well, that is a small flaw in the overall scheme of things that is easily forgiven. I highly recommend this book. ( )
1 vote rocketjk | Apr 25, 2021 |
A kid named Elvis stumbles through the shitty lot life dealt him in Nigeria, particularly Lagos and its desolate slums. Could only process a chapter at a time - compact and unsettling vignettes. Rather liked it, though. ( )
  dandelionroots | Apr 27, 2016 |
A 'Mr. Toad's Wild Ride' through the terrible world of Nigeria in the 80's. Although it's crammed full of fascinating information and quirky characters, there are too many technical flaws in this book for me. The main character is frustratingly passive, POV shifts are dizzying, and apparently the author never heard of 'show don't tell'. ( )
  idyll | Apr 9, 2013 |
I had the hardest time beginning to read this book. I'm not sure it was anything wrong with the book, but for some reason every time I started it I couldn't follow through. I finally willed myself to get this book read and I'm glad I did. I liked the book, I feel like the description of the book doesn't do it justice though. I can't really say that it doesn't fit or is wrong, because it's not--- it's just so much more. First here's what it says: "The sprawling, swampy, cacophonous city of Lagos, Nigeria, provides the backdrop to the story of Elvis, a teenage Elvis impersonator hoping to make his way out of the ghetto. Nuances, lyrical, and pitch perfect, tis is a remarkable story of a son and his father, and a examination of postcolonial Nigeria, where the trappings of American culture reign supreme." But this book touches on everything, I feel like Elvis' dancing and "the trappings of American culture" did not make as much of an impact in this story as the coming of age journey set behind the mess of the life in the ghetto. Military clashing and a number of fringe jobs they show for survival make this story come alive. The discussions about the military governments and what if anything can be done really made the book feel real. My only issue was I feel there was excessive and needless sexual references---- not that I'm a prude, and to be fair everything felt so real. Confessions this boy is thinking and feeling feel remarkably honest, and I do love that though. So that's not much of a gripe since I both liked and disliked it.

I wished I had jotted down notes or had read this on my Kindle where I could highlight. There was some amazing quotes in this book. Having just finished the book tonight I can at least mark one I read today:

"Funds? What funds? Let me tell you, dere are no bigger tiefs dan dose World Bank people. Let me tell you how de World Bank helps us. Say dey offer us ten-million-loa for creating potable and clean water supply to rural areas. If we accept, dis is how dey do us. First dey tell us dat we have to use de expertise of their consultants, so dey remove two million for salaries and expenses. Den dey tell us dat de consultants need equipment to work, like computer, jeeps or bulldozers, and for hotel and so on, so dey take another two million. Den dey say we cannot build ne boreholes but must service existing one, so dey take another two million to buy parts. All dis money, six million of it, never leave de U.S. Den dey use two million for de project, but it is not enough, so dey abandon it, and den amy bosses take de remaining two million. Now we, you and I and all dese poor people, owe de World Bank ten million dollars for nothing. Dey are all tiefs and I despise dem--- our people and de World Bank people!"

Just a good example of how this book is so much more, it brings about many ideas, problems, and realities. ( )
  LibrarianDanielle | Mar 30, 2013 |
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Detta är orden från älskande, från dansare, från makalösa sångare. Detta är sånger om du känner musiken. - Amiri Baraka
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Delphine, Stella and Daphne

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Graceland is a dazzling debut by a singular new talent The sprawling, swampy, cacophonous city of Lagos, Nigeria, provides the backdrop to the story of Elvis, a teenage Elvis impersonator hoping to make his way out of the ghetto. Broke, beset by floods, and beatings by his alcoholic father, and with no job opportunities in sight, Elvis is tempted by a life of crime. Thus begins his odyssey into the dangerous underworld of Lagos, guided by his friend Redemption and accompanied by a restless hybrid of voices including The King of Beggars, Sunday, Innocent and Comfort. Ultimately, young Elvis, drenched in reggae and jazz, and besotted with American film heroes and images, must find his way to a GraceLand of his own. Nuanced, lyrical, and pitch perfect, Abani has created a remarkable story of a son and his father, and an examination of postcolonial Nigeria where the trappings of American culture reign supreme. "A richly detailed, poignant, and utterly fascinating look into another culture and how it is cross-pollinated by our own. It brings to mind the work of Ha Jin in its power and revelation of the new."--T. Coraghessan Boyle

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