A Young Man of Strict Nigerian-American Parents Comes of Age While Coming Out
BY: DWIGHT GARNER
The jury is out on whether dating apps like Happn and Grindr are bad for society or simply bad for the future of vowels. They’re plainly no help to Niru, the teenage boy at the center of “Speak No Evil,” Uzodinma Iweala’s second novel.
You’ve heard of Iweala, even if you’ve not read him. He’s an American writer of Nigerian descent whose confident, persuasive and harrowing first novel, “Beasts of No Nation” (2005), began as his thesis work in creative writing at Harvard.
That book told the story of Agu, a child soldier who fights in a civil war in an unnamed West African country. It became a slow burn of a Netflix movie from the director Cary Fukunaga.
Iweala’s long-awaited and underwhelming sophomore effort is set in the United States. It’s about what happens when Niru, the son of wealthy and conservative Nigerian-American parents in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., comes out of the closet to Meredith, a preppy white girl who’s in love with him.
In her novel “Americanah,” the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had a blogger write: “One great gift for the Zipped-Up Negro is The White Friend Who Gets It.” Niru is as zipped up as a freezer bag. And the sensitive Meredith, who resembles “a younger Anne Hathaway,” gets it.
She so wants to be useful to her gay friend that she secretly installs Grindr and other dating apps on his phone. When Niru’s father sees his flashing notifications and asks “Who is Ryan?” this novel’s fuse is lit.
Before long Niru and his father are on their way back to Nigeria for gay conversion therapy of a sort that would warm the ventricles of Mike Pence’s tattletale heart.
Iweala plays Niru’s story as tragedy, not farce. Indeed, one of this book’s essential points is that reckless fun is only for white teenagers. Niru may be a track star and headed to Harvard (early admission), but he has to be perpetually wary.
“I look at these kids laughing with each other, standing without jackets like even the cold can’t touch them and I don’t understand why there are people for whom rules and norms are fully optional, for whom foolishness is celebrated,” Niru thinks.
White kids smoke weed, ingest cocaine and hook up freely. “And there is me,” he says, “black, sober and scared to death by locker room banter.”
“Speak No Evil” is a muted, minor-chord novel. The trip to Nigeria and a startling moment of racial violence late in the book aside, it is a fairly mild and conventional gay coming-of-age novel, a sarsaparilla instead of a shot.
It’s a book about race and gender and identity but not an especially telling book about those things. Its characters are thin. There is no sting in its tail, no joker in its pack, no treble in its sonics. Its two parts, one narrated by Niru, the other by Meredith, fuse awkwardly.
Some writers can smack a genre’s clichés and coax them back to life. Iweala in this case is not among them. The “It Gets Better” movement is a glorious thing, for example, but that phrase is repeated too many times in this novel.
When Niru goes to a running event, he says what you somehow know he is going to say: “Today we’re going to leave it all on the track.” The cute boy he begins to date is from central casting.
There are signs Iweala knew his long-gestating novel had problems. In the acknowledgments he thanks his editor for her “tolerance of tabletops full of index cards instead of pages of text.”
He thanks another woman for “your insistence that there was a good book hidden somewhere in the jumble of pages.” A third woman is credited with “listening to me cry about it, whine, try to quit writing, not quit, and then try to quit again.” You begin to feel you are holding less the product of a natural birth than an emergency cesarean.
(Students of effusive acknowledgments will find much to digest in Iweala’s six pages of them. One couple is thanked for “that wood-smoked salmon,” another for “that charred kale salad tho.” A woman is thanked “because three words: Italian, hot, sauce.” Niru, alas, is a picky eater.)
There are moments in this novel that hint at Iweala’s freer, more essayistic voice. He is probing on how, back home in Nigeria, Niru’s father is a different man — larger and louder, he seems to take up more space. Niru’s older brother diagnoses this change as “Nigeriatoma, an acute swelling of ego and pride.”
Niru goes on: “Symptoms may vary but are exceptionally pronounced upon return to native soil and include hyperactivity, elevated mood, grandiose thinking and increased aggression.” Finally he adds, “The duration of symptoms may vary, but poor electricity, bad roads and exposure to extreme heat have proven effective as treatment.”
Here is the vivid scene when Niru’s father first confronts him about his apparent homosexuality: “He grabs my ear. Daddy, I yelp as he twists and pulls me forward. You want to go and do gay marriage, is that what you want, you want to go and carry man, put your thing for his nyash? Abomination. A BOMI NATION. He pushes my face down into the kitchen table.”
Not enough scenes are this alive. Like so many second novels, this one feels like a book Iweala had to get out of the way in order to arrive at what he really wants to write next.