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Graceland (Today Show Pick January 2005) Paperback – January 26, 2005

4.2 out of 5 stars 60 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From the Back Cover

"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

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. Nuanced, lyrical, and pitch perfect, this is a remarkable story of a son and his father, and an examination of postcolonial Nigeria, where the trappings of American culture reign supreme.

"Abani's intensely visual style--and his sense of humor--convert the stuff of hopelessness into the stuff of hope."--San Francisco Chronicle

"Extraordinary...This book works brilliantly in two ways. As a convincing and unpatronizing record of life in a poor Nigerian slum, and as a frighteningly honest insight into a world skewed by casual violence, it's wonderful...And for all the horrors, there are sweet scenes in Graceland too, and they're a thousand times better for being entirely unsentimental...Lovely." --The New York Times Book Review

"To say that this is a Nigerian or African novel is to miss the point. This absolutely beautiful work of fiction is about complex strained political structures, the irony of the West being a measure of civilization, and the tricky business of being a son. Abani's language is beautiful and his story is important."--Percival Everett

Chris Abani was born in Nigeria. At age sixteen he published his first novel, for which he suffered severe political persecution. He went into exile in 1991, and has since lived in England and the United States. His last book, Daphne's Lot, is a collection of poetry for which he won a 2003 Lannan Literary Fellowship. He is also the recipient of the PEN USA West Freedom to Write Award and the Prince Claus Award. Abani lives and teaches in Los Angeles.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Excerpt from GraceLand by Chris Abani. Copyright © 2004 by Christopher Abani. To be published in February, 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Book I

It seemed almost incidental that he was African.
So vast had his inner perceptions grown over the years . . .
A Question of Power


This is the kola nut. This seed is a star. This star is life. This star is us.

The lgbo hold the kola nut to be sacred, offering it at every gathering and to every visitor, as a blessing, as refreshment, or to seal a covenant. The prayer that precedes the breaking and sharing of the nut is: He who brings kola, brings life.

Lagos, 1983

Elvis stood by the open window. Outside: heavy rain. He jammed the wooden shutter open with an old radio battery, against the wind. The storm drowned the tinny sound of the portable radio on the table. He felt claustrophobic, fingers gripping the iron of the rusty metal protector. It was cool on his lips, chin and forehead as he pressed his face against it.

Across the street stood the foundations of a building; the floor and pillars wore green mold from repeated rains. Between the pillars, a woman had erected a buka, no more than a rickety lean-to made of sheets of corrugated iron roofing and plastic held together by hope. On dry evenings, the smell of fried yam and dodo wafted from it into his room, teasing his hunger. But today the fire grate was wet and all the soot had been washed away.

As swiftly as it started, the deluge abated, becoming a faint drizzle. Water, thick with sediment, ran down the rust-colored iron roofs, overflowing basins and drums set out to collect it. Taps stood in yards, forlorn and lonely, their curved spouts, like metal beaks, dripping rain water. Naked children exploded out of grey wet houses, slipping and splaying in the mud, chased by shouts of parents trying to get them ready for school.

The rain had cleared the oppressive heat that had already dropped like a blanket over Lagos; but the smell of garbage from refuse dumps, unflushed toilets and stale bodies was still overwhelming. Elvis turned from the window, dropping the threadbare curtain. Today was his sixteenth birthday, and as with all the others, it would pass uncelebrated. It had been that way since his mother died eight years before. He used to think that celebrating his birthday was too painful for his father, a constant reminder of his loss. But Elvis had since come to the conclusion that his father was simply self-centered. The least I should do is get some more sleep, he thought, sitting on the bed. But the sun stabbed through the thin fabric, bathing the room in sterile light. The radio played Bob Marley's "Natural Mystic," and he sang along, the tune familiar.

"There's a natural mystic blowing through the air / If you listen carefully now you will hear . . ." His voice trailed off as he realized he did not know all the words, and he settled for humming to the song as he listened to the sounds of the city waking up: tin buckets scraping, the sound of babies crying, infants yelling for food and people hurrying but getting nowhere.

Next door someone was playing highlife music on a radio that was not tuned properly. The faster-tempoed highlife distracted him from Bob Marley, irritating him. He knew the highlife tune well, "Ije Enu" by Celestine Ukwu. Abandoning Bob Marley, he sang along:

"Ije enu, bun a ndi n'kwa n'kwa ndi n'wuli n'wuli, eh . . ."

On the road outside, two women bickered. In the distance, the sounds of molue conductors competing for customers carried:

"Yaba! Yaba! Straight!"

"Oshodi! Oshodi! Enter quickly!"

Elvis looked around his room. Jesus Can Save and Nigerian Eagles almanacs hung from stained walls that had not seen a coat of paint in years. A magazine cutting of a BMW was coming off the far wall, its end flapping mockingly. The bare cement floor was a cracked and pitted lunar landscape. A piece of wood, supported at both ends by cinder blocks, served as a bookshelf. On it were arranged his few books, each volume falling apart from years of use.

By the window was a dust-coated desk, and next to it a folding metal chair, brown and crisp with rust. The single camping cot he lay on was sunk in the center and the wafer-thin mattress offered as much comfort as a raffia mat. A wooden bar secured diagonally between two corners of the room served as a closet.

There was a loud knock, and as Elvis gathered the folds of his loincloth around his waist to get up, the lappa, once beautiful but now hole-ridden, caught on the edge of the bed, ripping a curse from him. The book he had fallen asleep reading, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, fell from his side to the floor, the old paperback cracking at the spine, falling neatly into two halves as precisely as if sliced by a sword.

"Elvis! Elvis! Wake up. It's past six in de morning and all your mates are out dere looking for work," his father, Sunday, said.

"What work, sir? I have a job."

"Dancing is no job. We all dance in de bar on Saturday. Open dis bloody door!" Sunday shouted.

Elvis opened the door and eyed him. The desire to drive his fist through his father's face was old and overwhelming.

"I'll just wash, then go," he mumbled, shuffling past Sunday, heading for the backyard, passing Jagua Rigogo, who stood in the middle of the backyard cleaning his teeth with a chewing-stick, preparing for his morning ablutions and the clients who would soon start arriving to consult him on spiritual matters. He reached out and squeezed Elvis's arm as he passed. Elvis turned to him, opening his mouth to speak.

"Before you speak, my friend, remember, a spiritual man contain his anger. Angry words are like slap in de face."

Elvis took in Jagua's dreadlocks, gathered behind him in a long ponytail by a twisted tennis headband, and the distant red glare of his eyes. He didn't have his python with him, and Elvis wondered where it was. Probably asleep in the cot Jagua had salvaged from one of the city dumps, and which sat in the corner of his room. Merlin, his python, slept in it, comfortable as any baby.

"Jagua. I . . ." Elvis began, then stopped.

Jagua smiled, mistaking Elvis's resignation for control.

"Dat's de way," he said.

Elvis just sighed and silently fetched water from the iron drum sunning in a corner of the yard. He snatched his towel off the line and entered the bathroom, trying not to touch the slime-covered walls and the used sanitary pad in the corner. How did they come to this? he wondered. Just two years ago they lived in a small town and his father had a good job and was on the cusp of winning an election. Now they lived in a slum in Lagos. Closing his eyes, he rushed through his morning toilet. On his way back inside to get dressed, he passed his father in the corridor again.

"Are you still here?"

Elvis opened his mouth to answer but thought better of it.

The road outside their tenement was waterlogged and the dirt had been whipped into a muddy brown froth that looked like chocolate frosting. Someone had laid out short planks to carve a path through the sludge. Probably Joshua Bandele-Thomas, Elvis thought. Joshua was the eccentric who lived next door and spent his days pretending to be a surveyor.

Elvis and his father lived at the left edge of the swamp city of Maroko, and their short street soon ran into a plank walkway that meandered through the rest of the suspended city. Even with the planks, the going was slow, as he often had to wait for people coming in the opposite direction to pass; the planks were that narrow.

While he waited, Elvis stared into the muddy puddles imagining what life, if any, was trying to crawl its way out. His face, reflected back at him, seemed to belong to a stranger, floating there like a ghostly head in a comic book. His hair was closely cropped, almost shaved clean. His eyebrows were two perfect arcs, as though they had been shaped in a salon. His dark eyes looked tired, the whites flecked with red. He parted his full lips and tried a smile on his reflection, and his reflection snarled back. Shit, he thought, I look like shit. As he sloshed to the bus stop, one thought repeated in his mind: What do I have to do with all this?

Sitting on the crowded bus, he thought his father might be right; this was no way to live. He was broke all the time, making next to nothing as a street performer. He needed a better job with a regular income. He pulled a book from his backpack and tried to read. It was his current inspirational tome, a well-thumbed copy of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. He read books for different reasons and had them everywhere he was: one in his backpack, which he called his on-the-road book, usually one that held an inspirational message for him; one by his bed; and one he kept tucked in the hole in the wall in the toilet for those cool evenings when a gentle breeze actually made the smell there bearable enough to stay and read. He opened the book and tried to read, sitting back as far as he could in the narrow seat. He hated the way he was being pressed against the metal side by the heavyset woman sitting next to him, one ample buttock on the seat, the other hanging in the aisle, supported against a standing stranger's leg. Elvis shifted, careful of the loose metal spring poking up through the torn plastic of the seat cover. Giving up on reading, he let his mind drift as he stared at the city, half slum, half paradise. How could a place be so ugly and violent yet beautiful at the same time? he wondered.

He hadn't known about the poverty and violence of Lagos until he arrived. It was as if people conspired with the city to weave a web of silence around its unsavory parts. People who didn't live in Lagos only saw postcards of skyscrapers, sweeping flyovers, beaches and hotels. And those who did, when they returned to their ancestral small towns at Christmas, wore...
--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 321 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; 1st Picador Ed edition (January 26, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312425287
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312425289
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.9 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #112,982 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This book was quite a moving, magical experience for me. I was first drawn by just the cover (which is funny considering we're not supposed to judge books by covers yet I almost always am drawn to striking covers and then the contents). When I read the jacket, I thought of the recent Brazilian film CITY OF GODS. Well, I thought Chris Abani's book had far more humanity, and far more hope. The ending is sublime, and very emotional. The book is rather sprawling, detailing the life of young Elvis Okwe. His struggles to do the right thing are incredibly intense and heartbreaking. He really wants to be a good person, a good man, and its often things that are out of his hands that prevent him from doing that. All of the characters are well-drawn and unconventional, without ever being stereotypical, especially Elvis's father, who you think is just abusive and distant, but is really a tragic, complicated man, torn apart by the love of his country. GRACELAND encompasses many themes, but most importantly, it is about "redemption," not just for Elvis but for the country that Mr. Abani clearly loves. I loved this book and I hope it finds its audience.
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Format: Hardcover
Graceland is an enlightening yet very disturbing look into the poverty-stricken and corrupt nation of Nigeria. Although this book is a coming-of-age story, it also displays a culture besieged by American influence and internal discontent. Abani's choice to name the main character Elvis is particularly interesting since the reference to an American pop culture icon contrasts with the other metaphorical names like Redemption and Comfort. He is cloaked in a culture to which he doesn't truly belong and is alienated in a manner reminiscent of Ralph Ellison's nameless invisible man. Descriptions of the elaborate and vital kola nut ceremony are spaced throughout the book in a way that implies how deeply embedded such rituals are in Igbo people despite the background of American runoff; Nigeria has a society of multiple layers. Abani displays the curious intermingling of these two contrasting cultures very well.

The book was very well-written and the format made it particularly realistic. It is not chronologically organized, but the date preceding each section prevents confusion. This format, with excerpts from his mother's journal and descriptions of the kola nut ceremony mixed in, makes it easier to understand Elvis' perspective; details about his earlier life and Nigerian culture provide a context in which the story is set. The only problem I felt there was with the book was I felt Elvis could have been more emotionally developed.
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Format: Hardcover
Chris Abani's Graceland is a compelling novel that chronicles the adolescence of a Nigerian Elvis impersonator left to fend for himself after his mother's death and his father's turn to alcoholism. The novel is set in post-colonial Lagos, Nigeria and provides a devastating look into the violence, corruption, and poverty of Africa's slums. But although it delves into the issue political tension, it is not solely focused on the local goings-on. Graceland is a story of human affliction at the hands of overbearing fathers, crooked governments, and western influence.

If you are looking for an uncomplicated and linear novel, then Graceland isn't for you. Its plot jumps back and forth from Elvis' childhood to his teen years. Although these sudden shifts may seem disconcerting, they ultimately help the reader understand Elvis on a deeper level. The stories of his past make up who he is in the present, giving the reader a fuller sense of his character. The point of view also shifts throughout the novel. While most of the story follows Elvis, some parts of it are instead of his father's point of view, or even his cousin Innocence's. These short dips into another character's life and experience show that Elvis is not the only victim of the circumstances in Nigeria. It would be easy to point a finger of blame at Sunday, Elvis' father, but glimpses into his life show that he too has been irreparably damaged. Although he seems like the cause of Elvis' pain, he is just another casualty of corruption. Every character suffers, and no one lives unscathed. Bits of culture are also thrown into the mix: throughout the book, one can find Nigerian recipes, medicinal uses for herbs and plants, and the procession of the kola nut ritual.
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Format: Hardcover
If you've come this far in your trip to Graceland, take the next step. Buy it. Read it. Abani's story will not resemble the well-made novel - the plot jumps, holes abound, and the focus shifts, but you will be mesmerized, horrified, and provoked into laughter and even delight. If you've read Chris's poetry, you'll be grateful that his gift for concise and intense language is given full play, but the novel form allows him more room to work with structure, memory, and juxtaposition. Recipes and kola ceremony flow through the narrative, reminding us of another time, a "childhood" of ancestral wisdom and motherlore that has been all but beaten out of modern Nigeria. The story's events occur between 1973 and 1983, over twenty years ago. It feels contemporary but also quite dated: there's no mention of AIDS, for instance, and the war in Sudan is only beginning. One fears that a contemporary version of the story would seem worse, but that's like saying Oliver Twist is out of date. The forms of human misery change, but pain is timeless. What Elvis undergoes in Graceland is horrible by any standards.

The book is not just an exercise in suffering. Its high-life rhythm is almost danceable and the language begs to be sung or rapped with the right lilt and spin. The characters have fantastic names, exotic personalities, and metaphorical heft. The reader is always aware that Abani is working on several levels at once, exposing a real world, developing a complex character, cauterizing an enduring wound, mourning a lost past, and crafting a handbook for survival in the global village. The elements are familiar, the mix is new, important, and vital. Reading this book will expand your mind and delight your soul.
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