A Nigerian-American Bildungsroman, in Mormon Country Image

By Tope Folarin

“Task: to be where I am. / Even when I’m in this solemn and absurd / role: I am still the place / where creation works on itself.”

This verse, from the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer’s “Guard Duty,” provides the epigraph for Nigerian-American Tope Folarin’s debut novel, “A Particular Kind of Black Man,” and echoes of Transtromer’s lucidly self-instructive poem ring throughout its pages.

Folarin’s coming-of-age story centers on Tunde Akinola, a young Nigerian-American boy who was born in Utah and speaks English with “a solid middle-American accent.” He’s a first-generation kid, as unremarkable as so many unremarkable Americans. Yet Tunde’s ordinariness is treated as foreignness, as is the case with so many such Americans — sometimes at the hands of their own unpopularly elected president. He soon finds himself alienated both from his town’s banal white supremacy — the novel’s opening passage is a scene of cheerful horror in which an older white woman tells a 5-year-old Tunde: “Remember, if you are a good boy here on earth, you can serve me in heaven” — and from his own family, whose gradual disintegration is the beating heart of much of the book.

Tunde’s mother — a Beatles and Bob Dylan fan who comes to America from Lagos expecting “a country where love conquered all, where black people and white people lived together in peace and harmony” — battles both mental illness and a distinctly diasporic unhappiness that will be familiar to readers who have experienced similar scenes in their own families.

“She is just too sick,” Tunde’s father says. “This country’s no good for her.” Folarin is attentive to the ways in which mental illness and the particular crises of poverty, immigration and Blackness can dovetail, and how communal silence and shame can magnify one rupture into many.

[ “A Particular Kind of Black Man” was one of our most anticipated titles of August. See the full list. ]

The dilemmas of nonwhite male immigrants, and their corrosive effects on not just selfhood but intimacy, are a trope of American literature.
The dilemmas of nonwhite male immigrants, and their corrosive effects on not just selfhood but intimacy, are a trope of American literature.Credit

When Tunde’s mother eventually leaves the family and returns to Nigeria, Tunde’s father tells Tunde and his brother, Tayo, that they will soon have a new mother. Tunde’s initial hope soon fades into misery as his stepmother’s neglect and abuse become apparent.

The fantasy of this patched-together family takes its final breath in a passage in which Tunde’s bootstrap-capitalist father, a determined disciple of the entrepreneurial dream, recruits his family to sell ice cream at the Hartville City Fair, using an old post office truck with a horn-shaped speaker jerry-built onto it, and a freezer scavenged from the junkyard. The fair and its anticipated effect on their fortunes become the epicenter of the family’s dreams and aspirations, and the scene crystallizes the way some moments live in a child’s mind forever, becoming not just memory but monument.

The novel moves among literary modes and registers, its formal elasticity reflecting the ways in which Folarin’s protagonist situates himself in the world, as the narrow, first-person lens of the early childhood chapters gives way to anxiously diaristic teenage years.

A chapter called “September 9, 2001 1:21 AM,” which begins, “What do I remember about the rest of high school?,” recalls Joe Brainard’s incantatory memoir, “I Remember.” Tunde admits his own fallibility in attempting to empathize with his stepmother: “Everything I’ve written about my stepmother so far makes her seem like a sidekick or a sitcom wife. I have no idea how I’m supposed to write about her with compassion — to write her as a fully human character — when I know in the end she will leave.” He then proceeds to narrate the subsequent chapter in the second person.

That lampshading admission underscores the novel’s underdevelopment of female characters over all. Tunde’s mother, stepmother and even his girlfriend remain characters in orbit; Tunde is the sun. The dilemmas of diaspora as they intersect with masculinity have corrosive effects on not just selfhood but intimacy; in this Folarin is working in an American tradition with many literary forebears. Tunde’s lovestruck bliss is matched by his spiraling terror of connection: “It’s true, I’ve never been happier in my life,” he reflects, but then asks, “What happens after happiness?” The tragedy is that Tunde cannot even begin to come up with real answers to those questions; he would rather foreclose them with easy assumptions and easier exits. But those answers are precisely what life — wild, vulnerable, lived — is made up of. Novels, too.

“My life has been kind of about moving on from one place to the next, and developing an identity that is composed of disparate parts,” Folarin told Yale’s Post45 in a 2014 interview. “So my fiction is concerned with that kind of journey.” The word “particular” in the novel’s title is fitting, since what emerges most clearly in its pages is a study of the particulate self, the self as a constellation of moving parts. By the book’s denouement, there are no simple resolutions; only encounters, fragile connections, the mere suggestions of answers. The ultimate shape of those answers just might look something like the final lines of Transtromer’s poem:

But to be where I am … and to wait.
I am full of anxiety, obstinate, confused.
Things not yet happened are already here!
I feel that. They’re just out there:
a murmuring mass outside the barrier.
They can only slip in one by one.
They want to slip in. Why? They do
one by one. I am the turnstile.

Elaine Castillo is the author, most recently, of “America Is Not the Heart.”

By Tope Folarin
261 pp. Simon & Schuster. $26.