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- Published on Amazon.com
Las Vegas is a city of fantasy, making it a fitting setting for a novel that uses elements of myth and fantasy to illuminate truth and reality. With casinos that replicate Paris and Venice and ancient Egypt, Las Vegas (Chris Abani theorizes) is searching for a myth that will validate its existence, a link to a place with deeper and more substantial roots. Abani posits that Las Vegas has given birth to "submerged and subterranean cultures" filled with "the fevered men who so desperately wanted those myths to be true." It is also a city that attracts lost souls. Myths and lost souls provide the background for The Secret History of Las Vegas, an original and perceptive blend of humor and drama, fantasy and reality.
In one of the most interesting openings to a novel I've recently encountered, fused twin sons are born in the Nevada desert, two miles from an exploding nuclear bomb. Their mother names them Fire and Water. Years later, Water is a handsome adult, physically normal except for the head and partial body of Fire that sprouts from his side.
Meeting Fire and Water unnerves Detective Salazar. He wants to detain them as suspects in a series of unsolved killings but, lacking good cause, decides to hold them for observation by a mental health expert. He calls upon the novel's central character, Sunil Singh, a researcher at a private Las Vegas institute who is studying psychopathic behavior. Half Zulu, half Indian, and displaced from South Africa, Sunil thinks of Las Vegas as home. It is, at least, fertile ground for his study of psychopaths.
Beyond its beginning, I won't describe the plot, lest its craziness put you off (and also to avoid spoiling the pleasure of the surprises it holds). Suffice it to say that it involves past and present loves stories and a hit man who has a grudge against Sunil. At times it seems like a parody of a thriller. At other times it becomes a serious novel about race and injustice. The characters are just as unpredictable as the plot. No matter how familiar they are (the hooker with the heart of gold, the police detective on the verge of retirement who is frustrated by an unsolved crime), Abani twists them into less recognizable (but strangely believable) shapes. Fire and Water are hilarious, at least if you appreciate humor that is offbeat, slightly absurdist, and somewhat dark. Water responds to questions with not-quite-relevant trivia while Fire responds with sarcasm.
Yet for all the humor, The Secret History of Las Vegas is a serious commentary on the impact of apartheid on its victims. While races around the world are slowly blending together into a "sepia of tolerance," Sunil's life in South Africa was shaped by the racial classifications marked on South African identity documents carried by nonwhites, "the backbone of apartheid." The dangers and indignities of Soweto, the evils that he saw and that he perpetrated, are never far removed from Sunil's memories. At the same time, he has grown weary of people who wear trauma like a badge, vying for the distinction of belonging to the group that suffered the most, as if "tallying an impossible math" will arrive at a meaningful result.
In addition to the myths of Las Vegas, Sunil recalls the myths of South Africa, particularly the Sorrow Tree, which "could bear everyone's pain for a short while." All the novel's characters are bearing pain but they manage to find respites from pain, often by coming together, as people do when they gather at the Sorrow Tree. Sunil is searching for his own myth, the fictional story that will explain the truth of his life. Abani furthers that theme by incorporating a fairy tale from Sunil's childhood that is a thinly veiled version of a true story. Myth, illusion, fantasy, and varying versions of reality all stir together in Abani's fresh, eccentric, funny, moving, and thoroughly entertaining novel.