One morning, a 33-year-old Nigerian man named Furo Wariboko wakes to find that his skin has turned white. He slips from the house, avoiding his family. He has a job interview and doesn’t want to be late. As he treks through the bustle of rush-hour Lagos, “stares followed him everywhere.” People shout “oyibo,” Nigerian slang for white people. “He needed the job more than he feared a lynching.” Most in these neighborhoods “have never held a conversation with an oyibo, never considered white people as anything more or less than historical opportunists or gullible victims, never seen red hair, green eyes, or pink nipples except on screen and on paper.”
At Haba!, a publishing company that specializes in business books, Furo gets fortuitous treatment. He’s instantly hired, granted an executive position and a company car. Only, his job won’t start for two weeks and he needs a passport. Thus begins Furo’s sojourn through Lagos, where he navigates the unforgiving hubbub and generous whims of strangers. He struggles to negotiate fair prices with cabdrivers and to convince salesmen he’s a born-and-raised Nigerian.
Furo meets Igoni (like the novel’s author, Nigerian writer A. Igoni Barrett) at the Palms, a megamall in a glitzy part of the city. Furo asks if he can stay with Igoni, who humorously responds, “I’m in the middle of some writing, so I really can’t.”
A woman named Syreeta, whose “prettiness … kept him looking,” eventually takes Furo in, clothes him, feeds him and, after sleeping with him, discovers his black backside.
There are comical scenes where Furo pilfers Syreeta’s skin-lightening cream and rubs it on his backside, and where he meets Syreeta’s gaggle of gated community friends who adopt Western mannerisms and names — akin to “The Real Housewives of Lagos.”
Furo’s trek through Lagos is sometimes blurred by clumsy language. Eyes “swing” and “pin” and “tear away.” In “Blackass” we’re too often told rather than shown about tones “stentorian” or “edging toward aggression.” Furo is purposely placid in the face of the freak occurrence (so it goes in fairy tales) but sometimes Barrett seems to want to flesh him out, to connect him to his father’s entrepreneurial failures, his yearnings for conventional success and the possibility that he may never see his family again.
There’s also a metafictional plotline that follows Furo’s sister’s Twitter persona, a “rebirth” parallel that lacks the compelling strangeness of the sections devoted to Furo. These split attentions contribute to a feeling of torn loyalty — am I supposed to care about anyone here? — in an otherwise charming first novel.
Josh Cook’s writing has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Iowa Review, the Millions and elsewhere. He lives in St. Paul.