Ike Uzondu is desperate: stripped of money by his ex-wife, scraping together a living as a cab driver in New York City, taking relief—too much relief—in whiskey, and falling deeper into a gambling addiction. Not to mention the money he promised to send his mother in Nigeria, and the emails from his sister pleading with him to come back to his home village, Utonki.
Ike needs cash.
Enter Foreign Gods, Inc., a store that deals in tribal deities for the affluent, with gods bought and sold for prices that can solve Ike’s problems. Ike has a god he can sell: Ngene, the god of war from his village. But he has to steal it first. So begins an odyssey from the streets of New York to the village roads of Utonki, where Ike (pronounced Ee-kay) travels to steal the god and contend with the crisis that has split his family.
Ike’s father died over a decade ago, and his mother and sister insist that the main culprit behind his death is Ike’s Uncle Osuakwu. The schism falls along religious lines. Christianity has come to Utonki, and Ike’s mother has become a fervent follower of the new pastor, throwing herself into a God-be-praised hysteria. Uncle Osuakwu, meanwhile, presides as chief priest over a different sort of service, holding court in the shrine of the village god, Ngene. When Ike enters this battle, he chooses sides with his uncle, the very person he plans to betray.
Such rich contradictions are Foreign Gods, Inc.’s strength. Ike is a Nigerian returning to his home country from America, and he belongs to both and neither places. Though he has a university degree in economics, with its promise of lucrative employment, businesses won’t give him a chance—mostly, and maddeningly to Ike, because of his accent. But once in Utonki, his family and friends implore him for money, believing he possesses it because, naturally, he lives in America.
Likewise, Ike is quick to ridicule the pastor for exploiting the faith of his mother, and yet his goal is exactly what this pastor wants: to rid the village of its deity. He feels loyalty toward Osuakwu and recalls the stories about Ngene that kept him spellbound as a child, but this connection is undermined by his impending betrayal. What Ike fails to see is that he, too, is under a spell. He has built his faith on the lure of riches in America, of cashing in on the house of wealth that is Foreign Gods, Inc.
The moral compass spins enough for readers to ask: where is the center? The only sacred place left appears to be with Ngene. But satellite dishes and taller buildings and cell phones have come to Utonki. The world is developing, ready or not, and Uncle Osuakwu’s shrine begins to feel isolated. The owner of Foreign Gods, Inc., a shark of a man named Mark Gruels, asserts that “even gods and sacred objects must travel or lose their vitality; any deity that remained stuck in its place and original purpose would become moribund.” And Ike begins to wonder if that’s true. These ambiguities linger well after the novel finishes.
The book is also notable for its deep weave of voice and storytelling. Scenes in Ngene’s shrine are awash in story—and stories within stories—as the followers share histories and parables. We are given the account of the first missionary to arrive in Utonki, and the fatal end to his attempt to tame the village god—a cautionary tale, ironically, for Ike himself. And the absurdity of the American hierarchy of wealth is captured smartly and humorously by the voices of villagers who watch Michael Jordan run the court on a taped basketball game. “They’re paid bags and bags of dollars,” one youth remarks. “Just for throwing that ball through a hole.”
As for plot, Ike’s driving desire slows during his week in Utonki. The urgency seems to vanish as the secondary stories of his family, the pastor, and former friends and lovers crowd in. We almost forget that he’s on a mission. But eventually the thread is found again, snapping us back to the immediate task, so that Ike can complete his fall.
Because fall he does. The promises inherent in education, green cards, and employment are broken and broken again, and yet Ike continues to struggle and hope. The sense of doom surrounding his scheme is pervasive, but like him we believe that yes, just maybe, he’ll come out ahead. We, too, buy into the belief that desperation and raw yearning, if they are strong enough, can trump brutal odds. But Foreign Gods, Inc. leaves readers with this warning: be mindful about the powers you serve, and careful about the ones you seek to cross. Some falls never find their lift.