Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani

The Secret History of Las Vegas: A Novel The lavishly talented poet, novelist, playwright, and publisher Chris Abani began his writing career in Nigeria at sixteen with a satirical political novel, Masters of the Board, and followed up with political plays meant to be performed on the street. He was jailed in Nigeria three times in the 1980s, then moved to England and onward to the United States. He continues to accumulate awards for his edgy poetry and prose, publishes The Black Goat Poetry Series, an imprint of Akashic Press, and teaches English at Northwestern University. Abani was raised Roman Catholic and while a teen studied in the seminary.

Abani’s latest novel is about betrayal and illusion, and how sometimes they might be the same thing. Humans betray all the time, intentionally or not, and we recognize the guilt or pain the characters confront as they examine large and small betrayals in their own lives. Sunil is a mixed-race South African transplant to Las Vegas where he works in a government lab, the Desert Palms Institute, as a scientist and co-director of a research project.
“Now Sunil thought of Las Vegas as home. That’s the thing about having always been a displaced person; home was not a physical space but rather an internal landscape…[though] Vegas is really an African city…a grandiose tomb to itself…Just like in every major city across Africa, from Cairo to his hometown of Johannesburg, the palatial exteriors of the city architecture barely screen the seething poverty, the homelessness, and the despair that spread in townships and shantytowns as far as the eye could see.”

Sunil knows something about a body dump just outside Vegas city limits near Lake Mead. Soon-to-retire Detective Salazar wants to solve the miserable case of multiple murders that has stretched on for years and, when he comes upon a possibly sociopathic pair of conjoined twins near the site, he calls Sunil for help.

It is here that Abani shows his particular sensitivity and skill in recognizing and representing the lives of outsiders. He parallels Sunil’s story as a Black Indian growing up in South Africa (doubly estranged from powerful White society under apartheid) with the conjoined twins who are part of The Downwinder Nation, a group committed to the eradication of dangerous military research in Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. Many of the Downwinders feel betrayed by their government because they are victims of that research, manifesting mutations as a result of being improperly protected from nuclear testing.

Illusion is another theme that runs through the narrative, and the conjoined twins, as freaks in the sideshow of a circus, understand and exploit this aspect of Las Vegas. Sunil himself has photos on the wall of his office that show zebu, the cattle of his childhood, so uniquely marked with spots that from a distance they look like flocks of birds resting on hillside, a spotted Rubik’s Cube, or a tarot deck. The Desert Palms Institute, supposedly working for the good of mankind, may actually be harming it.

Abani writes a dark story about the underside of glittery Las Vegas but ultimately the story is redemptive. South African Security agent Eskia trails Sunil from Joahnnesburg with a vendetta of his own, and Brewster, Sunil’s boss, rules the Desert Palms Institute lab with an unethical expediency. Neither escape the traps they have set for others.

Sunil has more than one woman in love with him, and he is capable of loving each. Sheila is a woman who works with him, and Asia is a prostitute. Sunil has ambiguous feelings about Asia’s work, but resolves it by explaining to Asia that "'prostitute' comes from the Latin verb prostituere. As a verb, it could mean that one is a prostitute only while having sex for money, rather than all the time, as when the word is used as a noun. Sunil is not granted resolution in the matter of the women so that we wonder at the end if these folks will reappear in a novel yet to come.

Abani’s great skill--what sets his work apart from many others--is rooted in his use of language, and his deep and abiding humanity in view of great inhumanity.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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