In turns satirical, risqué, sometimes breathtaking and at all times captivating, Okey Ndibe's second novel titled Foreign Gods, Inc. is a great story that traces the vicissitudes and vagaries of life as they apply to Ike Uzondu, a highly educated African immigrant in America. Ike’s fortunes and misfortunes mirror the experiences of many an immigrant in the United States, Europe or Asia.
Ike Uzondu’s dreams of a high-flying career in America’s corporate world are thwarted by a number of factors, among them his prominent accent. In desperation, he devises a scheme that involves returning to Nigeria to carry out an unusual and gripping kind of theft.
The way Mr. Ndibe’s novel pays attention to the nuances of greed, whilst at the same time drawing the reader into a state of empathy with Ike, is quite spectacular. Quite early, the reader realizes that Foreign Gods, Inc. is undoubtedly a great work, reaffirming Ndibe’s stature as one of our most gifted contemporary writers.
I find it most impressive that Ndibe, who teaches Africana literature at Brown University in Providence, RI, has chosen to take on the daunting task of creating an in-depth study of aspects of the social fabric of traditional Igbo religion, illustrated by the deep-rooted belief in gods of nature, while at the same time brilliantly capturing the complex life of a typical New Yorker with a cantankerous, high-maintenance wife.
Some good things do happen in Ike's life, but they all end badly. He relishes the fact of his solid education and hard work (he graduated summa cum laude from Amherst College), but his attempt to find a good job is stymied by potential employers’ discomfort with his accent. He marries and gets a green card (resident permit), but his wife, Bernita, is an unrelenting nag who stows away with his earnings and cheats on him. The marriage crashes down in an acrimonious divorce that costs Ike his life savings, reminding the reader of the way in which many an immigrant falls prey to adverse legal and social conventions.
Ike has graduated with high honors in Economics from Amherst, and is well qualified and sometimes even over-qualified for the jobs he applies for, but he is turned down in job after job interviews because of his accent. One employer bluntly informs him that his rejection is due to his accent. In order to survive, he takes to driving cabs, but Bernita spends his earnings as if Ike had the keys to the Federal Reserve Bank. As if that isn’t enough, her affair with a store clerk helps precipitate a divorce that seemed ripe to happen. As his troubles multiply and magnify, Ike takes to gambling, losing more of his dwindled income.
It is at this point that he is driven to desperation. He makes a trip to Utonki, in order to steal Ngene, a carved god whose chief priest is his uncle, Osuakwu. The journey back to Utonki contains some of the novel’s most scintillating details and captivating encounters. In his hometown, he meets his old flame, Regina, now a shadow of her old self after a marriage to a drug-pusher, Egoigwe, ended sadly. He also meets Tony Iba, his former secondary school classmate who is now a corruptly enriched politician. His widowed mother has become a convert to a church pastored by a dubious man, Pastor Uka, who blames Ike’s uncle for the death of Ike’s father. Ike successfully steals the statue of Ngene and pays a huge bribe to Nigerian Customs officers so as to return to the US with the deity. But when he arrives in New York, Ike finds out that his worst troubles have only just begun, and that selling the deity to a gallery that bears the same name as the novel is not as easy as he imagined.
Although Ndibe allows Ike to have small victories in the novel, they are, in the end, pyrrhic ones. The agony of hopeless job hunts and thwarted marriage have tested Ike’s reservoir of stoicism to the limits. You might well conclude that his life takes a turn for the worse with his scheme to steal Ngene.
Foreign Gods, Inc. touches on the social cum moral responsibilities of most Africans to their parents. In a typical African family situation, parents invest their life earnings on their children with the strong hope that their children will grow up and return the favor in the parents’ old, twilight years. In the case of Ike, the constant demands and extravagant life style of his wife create a conflict as they undercut his promise to care for his aged mother.
The novel is, quite purposefully, a microcosm of the challenges facing African immigrants who sometimes have to deal with the financial expectations of their families back home as well as the demands to maintain the particular lifestyles of extravagant spouses.
Insuppressible, 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.