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Peripheral visions

The Virgin of Flames A Novel Chris Abani Penguin: 292 pp., $14 paper

January 28, 2007|Ruben Martinez | Ruben Martinez, a professor at Loyola Marymount University, is the author of "Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail."

IN the months before the 1992 Los Angeles riots, I lived in an Echo Park bungalow complex called Sunset Villas. There were about a dozen units, modest one-bedrooms with hardwood floors and red tile roofs that faced each other across a concrete courtyard, making our private lives somewhat public. That's the way we wanted it. We were Jewish from San Diego, white from Florida, black from Detroit, brown from Costa Rica. We were men and women, gay and straight and bisexual, working class and middle class. I wouldn't say we'd sought each other out in a self-conscious attempt at "diversity," but difference clearly was at the heart of our desire. When the riots' flames erupted across the city, we saw the negation of our desire, or perhaps its perfection; if the violence proclaimed the permanence of difference, then maybe we lived in a world of desire without end.

Nearly 15 years later, Los Angeles is a city of immigrant marches, black-brown violence, gentrification tension and arguments over the movie "Crash." This is a landscape born of desire and contradicted by difference.

Chris Abani brings us plenty of contradicted desire in his third novel, "The Virgin of Flames," at once a passionate ode to the city and an exasperating muddle. Abani's growing literary presence makes this book the most anticipated L.A.-set novel in recent memory. His 2004 breakout, "GraceLand," won critical superlatives and a PEN/Hemingway Award; last summer, Publishers Weekly anointed him a "Young Turk With a Pen" among a hip global lit cohort that included Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri and Jonathan Safran Foer. Abani's renaissance-like persona -- novelist, poet, academic, even jazz saxophonist -- comes with a compelling biography. As a young man, he was imprisoned three times in his native Nigeria for producing literary works deemed threats to national security.

Miraculously surviving a death sentence (his compatriot and fellow writer Ken Saro-Wiwa did not), Abani has lived in London, New York and for the last half-dozen years in Southern California, where he teaches in the creative writing program at UC Riverside. In many ways, then, he is the quintessential Southern Californian. He is here, and he just got here. He arrived with plenty of history -- much of it steeped in tragedy -- and his prose is kinetic in a place that stakes everything on a brighter future. Generations of Californians have indulged this notion even as we know that the future will always be deferred due to disasters both natural and of our own making.

"The Virgin of Flames" immerses us in a Los Angeles that has received only increments of mainstream literary representation. This is the marginal city: the Eastside, by the L.A. River ("losing faith with every inch traveled"), among working-class immigrants and scraggly alternative types of various origins. Standing smack between these groups is a 36-year-old muralist named Black, who is the son of a Nigerian father and a mother from El Salvador. Black is confused about his identity -- his gender and sexual orientation in particular. His friends include Iggy, a Jewish tattoo artist and owner of the hipster cafe where Black rents a room, and a butcher named Bomboy, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide with questionable legal status in this country. Rounding out the cast is Black's object of desire, a Mexican transsexual stripper named Sweet Girl. Black's other fetish is the Virgin Mary, especially in the guises of Guadalupe and Fatima.

The long and short of the story is that Black is obsessed with painting a grand mural of the Virgin, which he does, and there is a revelatory dalliance with Sweet Girl along the way. This is not a novel long or strong on plot, and what little there is often teeters on the edge of involuntary parody. Read the jacket blurb and you'll immediately ask yourself whether "The Virgin of Flames" is a farce or some kind of multicultural picaresque. It's neither, and that's a problem. Abani leaves the proceedings rather humorless -- largely because Black's moping confusion accounts for most of the point of view.

That's a shame, because L.A. is so much the farce: No city has had as great a distance between its myths and its actualities. The only formal element here that relieves some of the dreariness is a modest leavening of magical realism. Black is pursued by the archangel Gabriel, who flutters about in the form of a pigeon trying to steer him toward the light. Abani also takes Los Angeles' torrential El Nino rains and Santa Ana wind-stoked wildfires to expressionistic extremes, culminating in a moment reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson's surreal coup in "Magnolia." Abani also invokes a clever magical real-within-the-real: An apparition of the Virgin is really Black cross-dressing in Iggy's wedding dress on the roof of the cafe. This draws thousands of faithful who fervently believe it is the real thing.

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