As I post this, I’m sitting in the Piano Lounge of the Transcorp Hilton in Abuja, Nigeria. It also happens to be the setting of a climactic scene in A. Igoni Barrett’s brilliant novel Blackass. What a treat!
Furo Wariboko, resident of Lagos, Nigeria, wakes up with a problem. He wakes up white. And he’s running late for a job interview, the latest comma in a long spell of post-university unemployment. He sneaks out of the house (How to explain this to his mother?) and shortly begins to feel the advantages of his new skin tone. At the job interview, he gets pulled out of a long line of applicants and is rejected as a salesman but appointed as the firm’s marketing director. He casts about for a place to stay and meets an educated, beautiful woman willing to take him in.
In addition to the obvious allusions to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (a cockroach emerges from under Furo’s bed in the early pages, and the job he applies for is as traveling salesman, just like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa), these initial elements evoke the old Saturday Night Live sketch in which Eddie Murphy masquerades as a white man for a day. But Barrett does more with the premise than that, exploring the nuance of race relations. On the one hand, “his whiteness had landed him a job.” On the other, “Everything conspired to make him stand out,” and “a white man in Lagos has no voice louder than the dollar sign branded onto his forehead.” On net, Furo benefits, but not everything is easier for this new white man.
Barrett observes life in Lagos with wonderful specificity and more than a little reflection, as in his thoughts on fancy houses with their own generators: “The nerve-grinding roar of individual power generation was as much a consequence of every-man-for-himself government as the lynch mobs that meted out injustice in public spaces. Private provision of public services has turned…everyone’s backyards into industrial wastelands. Every man the king of his house, every house a sovereign nation, and every nation its own provider of security, electricity, water. Lagos was a city of millions of warring nations.”
The novel isn’t perfect — I felt a few lags, and one sub-plot involving another character’s surprising transformation needed to be either longer or not there at all.
But the margins of my copy are spotted with notes, and I repeatedly gasped or laughed aloud. I loved it; I recommend it.
OTHER PEOPLE’S REVIEWS
- Dami Ajayi, Olisa: “This debut novel…charts contemporary Lagos with infectious vivacity and exactness. People from all walks of life – food vendors, kept women, business owners – are portrayed in their fullness, warts and all.”
- Jon Day, Financial Times: “Blackass is a strange, compelling novel, and Barrett has something to tell us all.”
- Lisa Guidarini, Chicago Review of Books: “Lyrical and inventive, Blackass casts a wide net with a large cast of characters, a testament to Barrett’s imaginative power.”
- MY FAVORITE REVIEW: Ikhide Ikheloa, What’s On Africa: “Blackass is a gorgeous book, I had trouble putting it down to attend to basic functions. It is the funniest, most engaging badass book I’ve read in years. You should read this book and enjoy freshly minted scintillating prose rioting with each other – it is a lush canvas of ideas, humor and vision. Barrett can write.”
- Kirkus: “Barrett’s prose is consistently entertaining, and though the ending leaves something to be desired, readers will have plenty of fun getting there.”
- Josh Cook, Star Tribune: “Split attentions contribute to a feeling of torn loyalty — am I supposed to care about anyone here? — in an otherwise charming first novel.”
- Claire Fallon, Huffington Post: “Barrett’s racial satire bulges with more ambitious ideas than its length can handle, but its power and insight should put him on to-watch lists.”
- Helon Habila, The Guardian: “Igoni Barrett’s greatest asset is his ability to satirise the ridiculous extents people, especially Lagosians, go to in order to appear important. … But his handling of plot is not so masterly.”
BOOKS MENTIONED IN THE BOOK
- The Metamorphosis, by Kafka
- Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
- Fela: This Bitch of a Life, by Moore
- Black Skin, White Masks, by Fanon
- The Rules of Wealth, by Templar
- Defying the Odds, by LEAP Africa
- The Leader Who Had No Title, by Sharma
- Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, by Bossidy and Charan
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Covey
- 1001 Ways to Take Initiative at Work, by Nelson
- The Five Dysfunctions, by Lencioni
- Are You Ready to Succeed? by Rao
- Metamorphoses, by Ovid
OTHER BITS I LIKED
- On mosquitos: “Those Brit-massacring heroes of West Africa’s anti-colonial resistance: the unacknowledged national insect of Nigeria.”
- On government bureaucrats: “He hadn’t foreseen that he would be left alone to face an official armed with a system.”
- On government corruption: “The process was moving along much more smoothly than he’d expected. The bribe-sharing, the queue-jumping, the fact non-checking, and the customer-handling were as efficient as any system whose design was alimentary: in through the mouth and straight out the anus.”
- Urban survival: “Life in Lagos was locked in a constant struggle against empathy.”
- On Nigerian airlines: “Trust our airlines too much and you’ll be late. Fly them long enough and you’ll be dead.”
- On local versus Western knowledge: “I strongly believe, sir, that the best business practices, like the best books, are universal. I have nothing against business books by Nigerians. But until they measure up, my company will never sell them.”