SPEAK NO EVIL. By Uzodinma Iweala. Harper. 213 pages. $26.99.
A cellphone can be a dangerous thing. Life starts to get particularly difficult for Uzodinma Iweala’s Harvard-bound, preppy, American-born hero Niru when his rigidly uptight Nigerian father discovers Grindr and Tinder apps on his phone as well as evidence of a date — “for coffee and whatever” — with a young man called Ryan.
Things had been difficult enough for Niru before that, simply trying to negotiate his last few years in high school as one of the only black kids in his D.C. prep school (some teachers still call him by his golden-boy older brother’s name) and simultaneously coping with the realization that he is gay.
His coming out is virtually forced on him by his best friend, a female classmate called Meredith who offers herself to Niru on the novel’s opening day when classes are canceled because of snow. Meredith takes the disappointment and surprise of Niru’s rejection in stride. By blithely trying to help her friend, she inadvertently outs Niru to his parents by setting up the dating apps on Niru’s phone.
Niru’s overbearing, hyper-masculine father, Obi, is the latest in a long line of similar fictional African fathers, reaching back to Achebe’s Okonkwo in "Things Fall Apart," or Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Babamukuru in "Nervous Conditions," and cropping up more recently in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s hypocritical Eugene in "Purple Hibiscus."
Like each of these precursors, Iweala’s Obi is readier with his fists than with his empathy, and on confronting Niru over the apps gives his son a thorough beating. To add insult to injury, he then insists on taking Niru back with him to Nigeria, for which Niru has an intense disdain, where an overzealous local bishop and four acolytes attempt a kind of exorcism of the “demon” of “homosexualism” that has apparently possessed Obi’s son.
Back in the States, Niru initially fights against his own inclinations but falls into a relationship with an undergraduate at Howard, the would-be dancer Damien. Despite tension with his parents and some continuing awkwardness with Damien, a young man already comfortable in his gayness, things seem to be improving for Niru. He even pulls out a medal-winning performance in the final track meet of the year, helping to secure victory for his school in their championship meet.
Up to this point, Iweala has given us a sympathetic coming-of-age story weaving in complex intersections of race, class and sexuality whose inherent difficulties are compounded by the differences between immigrant parents and their American-born offspring. Niru’s cushy lifestyle in a ritzy D.C. suburb is both a gift and a curse from his father who, having grown up in the famine caused by the Biafran War, constantly reminds his sons of their relative privilege.
The novel reaches its climax, though, in a section narrated from the viewpoint of Meredith some six years after the event. Here we learn of Niru’s sudden death at the hands of a trigger-happy cop when Niru and Meredith get into an argument outside a bar. The shooting comes from nowhere — as such shootings often do — but seems particularly implausible given the brevity and location of the struggle (where did the cop come from and why?).
So the effect is of Iweala reaching for a plot-line “ripped from the headlines” in a novel that was working very well as an intense and searching character-study. It feels as if he’s overdoing things. At the same time he manages to underdo things, since the fall-out from such an event would surely be far-reaching and far more worth exploring than Meredith’s relatively brief narrative acknowledges.
"Speak No Evil" is therefore a highly polished, intriguing and insightful second novel by an important member of the new generation of African novelists in America, but like an exaggerated dating profile, it promises more than it delivers. We’d probably have been more satisfied with slightly less.