Detective Salazar is headed home one evening when he’s called to check out a mysterious discovery on the edge of Lake Mead: conjoined twins, wading in the water, and next to them, a container of human blood. Salazar has been on the trail of a serial killer-could this strange pair be the murderer he’s searching for? The answer to this question, and the layers of deception and loss that extend from it, is at the core of The Secret History of Las Vegas, the new novel from the award-winning novelist and poet Chris Abani. Dark, complex, and suspenseful, The Secret History of Las Vegas creates a compelling portrait of a group of misfit characters caught up in a web of revenge.
The twins, Fire and Water, are members of the Carnival of Lost Souls, a community of freaks and sideshow acts living outside the Las Vegas city limits. By turns arrogant and evasive, the twins are brought in for psychiatric evaluation with Dr. Sunil Singh, an expert in psychopathic behavior. Sunil is haunted by memories of the political violence and racial oppression of his childhood in South Africa; for him, Fire and Water are not simply criminals or case studies, but fellow outsiders, in their own way. Together Sunil and Salazar are determined to unravel the mystery of the twins-their guilt or their innocence, their motive and their identity.
The Secret History of Las Vegas is built on a constellation of histories, both personal and political, and the novel shifts effortlessly from one character’s experience to another. Love, regret, and revenge are woven into the fabric of each character’s life; some, like Singh, seek to forget their past, while others, like Fire and Water, are determined to avenge it. Apartheid, abuse, and the casualties of America’s nuclear testing-many dark threads are woven into the plot, yet Abani’s novel is ultimately a compassionate one. His characters are flawed and their flaws are complex, but he presents them without judgment, leaving it to the reader to decide whether personal pain can ever justify terrible deeds.
Abani’s writing is crisp and quick, and he captures the hollow beauty of Las Vegas and the strange worlds that hover around the city’s edge. The Secret History of Las Vegas is not a standard mystery novel, nor is a tale of moral outrage, or heartbreak, or history-it is all these things and more. Abani sidesteps all expectations, bringing seemingly divergent plotlines together in a stunning conclusion that readers will be talking about well after they finish the book.
Chris Abani is a poet and novelist whose work includes Graceland and The Virgin of Flames. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Hemingway/PEN Prize, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship, among other honors. Originally from Nigeria, he lives in Chicago where he is a Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University.
Location figures prominently in the novel, not only where the characters are, but where they are from. How influential has location been in your other novels?
All my work is character driven to a large extent. I am interested in the way individuals and even cultures transform or resist transformation, into their ideal states. Location for me is an extension of character in the sense that I treat location as embodied, as storied with a psychological, philosophical, metaphorical and atmospheric sense of self. Most of my work has been city specific-Lagos, London, Los Angeles, and now Las Vegas-and each of those cities is as much a character as the people are. I believe that we live in a symbiotic state with “place,” and that we grow and change along with place as we adjust and grow the stories of our lives in that place. So yes, place is vital. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the cathedral is as much a character as Quasimod,o and so it is with place and my novels, performing a constant symbiotic evolution where the city influences as much as it is influenced. When I decide on a location for my particular story to play out, that location will determine and limit the characters that can populate the novel and place.
For those who may be coming to your work for the first time, could you speak a little bit about your youth in Nigeria and how that informs your writing?
I grew up in small towns, a child of middle class parents. My mother was English and my father Nigerian. They met in Oxford in 1954 and were married in Nigeria in 1957. My father held many positions-school principal, Member of Parliament, schools superintendent, customary court judge and a federal commissioner. My mother was a homemaker who later worked for the state newspaper. We moved around a lot and I had a great childhood. I read a lot-my mother taught me to read when I was three or four years old and I devoured two to three books a day for years. The Nigeria of the 1970’s was truly cosmopolitan-there was music from all over the world often blaring loudly from music shop speakers positioned to face the street-everything from Bach to James Brown. There were also Hollywood movies, Bollywood movies, British, American and Australian television. I was in a radio club and listened to shortwave radio broadcasts from as far afield as Siberia. I read all the Marvel and DC comics, comics from England and local comics and even graphic novels from South Africa. I was taught by teachers from Pakistan, India, and the Philippines. I was surrounded by a multiplicity of voices, accents, cultures and art forms. All of these have had a deep impact on my identity causing me to have a more global than local sense of self and making my writing fluid and musical and widely referential. These are just some of the ways that growing up in Nigeria has shaped and directed my language and aesthetic engagement.
Why did you choose to name the twins Fire and Water?
I was playing with a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde notion, exploring ways to showcase characters that have double existences, each opposite from the other and often so subconscious they often can’t see the divide. Conjoined twins seemed like an easy way to manifest that externally. And since they represent different archetypal modalities of the mind, fiery and cool, it seemed logical to name them after the two opposing elements: fire and water. It was also a personal nod towards my father. When I was growing up, my father, a tough man, was sent to reform the most difficult and troubled high schools. His tendency to confront difficulty head-on earned him the childhood nickname in Igbo-Oku dukuru mini. It means “when fire burns its way to water, water puts it out.”
Water’s preference to speak to others in pieces of trivia is amusing, but the facts he shares are fascinating. Are they all true? Where did you get them from? Do you have any favorites?
The facts are all true as far as I know. I researched them using the usual tools-Google and fact apps for the iPhone. I then verified them in my university library as best as I could. I love the way Water deploys the facts as a way to destabilize people who question him. And yes, I do have some favorites like: only humans and horses have hymens and, it is illegal to have sex with a fish in Minnesota. My two favorite factoids, which didn’t make it into the novel are that it’s illegal in Bakersfield, California, to have sex with Satan without a condom and that in Utah, sex with an animal-unless performed for profit-is not considered sodomy and therefore is legal.
With the Downwinders plotline, you’ve created an interesting portrait of the callousness of the American military, set alongside the cruelties of the South African ruling party under apartheid. Is there any government that doesn’t abuse its power in some way or another?
It’s the nature of power that it leads to excess and it seems the more often the power is wielded the more the tendency towards excess. It is true that governments often believe that they are acting in the interest of their citizens when they use power, but it’s a fine line, one that is easy to cross. This is what I do know, all ideologies breed institutions. Institutions often feel the need to protect themselves in order to flourish. This is usually the choice that leads to excess. I wouldn’t say the book is highlighting the callousness of the U.S. military. Probably as many good things have been done by the U.S. military as bad things-it’s not a simple picture. But the thing to remember is that in a democracy the military follow the orders of politicians and the politicians rule at the pleasure of the people, so we are all in the end complicit in these excesses-I think the book explores that.
Both Eskia and Sunil have blood on their hands. Are one man’s crimes more acceptable than the other’s?
Crime is a difficult thing to define sometimes. When a man from another country attacks us we call him a terrorist and when we retaliate we call it a military strike. Every country did this-South Africa especially during the apartheid years labeled all acts of dissent as terrorism. When a kid steals a stereo in California under the three-strike rule he can go to jail for life, but banks and their officers defraud nations and get bailouts. We know this dance. I think hierarchies of right and wrong, suffering and oppression are difficult and dangerous things. In this novel, while the crimes of each character are being investigated by the different state agencies, the characters have to go deep into themselves and face these demons on a more ethical and personal level, which can be worse sometimes than any external punishment.
Because Sunil’s early life in South Africa is pivotal to both the psychology of the character and the events of the novel, you provide a high degree of detail about his childhood and youth under apartheid rule-everything from commuting to work to the methods of the torture squads. What was your process in researching or conjuring this information?
Apartheid is easy to research. The people of South Africa have done a wonderful job of cataloging and trying to confront that particular chapter of their history, more so than any nation in the world. There are books on the subject from writers like Pumla Gobodo-Madikzela and Antje Krog, which provide an insightful lens. The transcripts of the Truth and Reconciliation Tribunal are also available to researchers. But I also traveled to South Africa multiple times to get a deeper sense of things, a deeper feel for the wound. The rest is my own understanding of oppression, of totalitarian regimes and how they operate based on growing up under military rule in Nigeria.
As a poet and novelist, do you feel more comfortable in one genre than in the other? Do you find certain themes or topics run through one type of writing more than the other?
I published my first novel at sixteen. So I do always think of myself as a novelist first and foremost. Poetry is a skill that came later and is much harder for me. Poetry is such a difficult form, which like painting is oversaturated, making it so hard to do anything new and interesting in it. I think prose comes easier to me. But still, I do them both well, I think. Well enough for my friend, Jamaican writer Colin Channer, to call me bi-textual. As for themes and tropes, I do think some things are better worked out as novels, or poems or even essays. I let the material lead the way and with experience and time, you develop an instinct for which works best. The way a good tailor knows what fabric works best for different bodies and different garments.
Which writers inspire you? If you could recommend one piece of writing-fiction, nonfiction, or poetry-to your readers, what would it be?
There are so many writers it would be impossible to list them all. I think the book I wished I had written is One Hundred Years of Solitude. My formative years were important in terms of influence so it would include comic books, TV shows, and all the Russian novelists and of course my main man, James Baldwin. Toni Morrison is someone I return to repeatedly as is Wole Soyinka. Also my friends like Peter Orner, Kwame Dawes, and Cristina Garcia. Really the list could go on. I think everyone should read the Bible. Everything you need to know about human nature, war, and the worst crimes is present in that tome. It’s a thriller, noir, telenovella, self-help, fantasy, and sci-fi-all genres can be found in it. That it serves some people spiritually is just another level of the gifts of the writers. It’s like an anthology of human history-desire and conflict.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on some commissioned screenplays and a collection of essays. The essays are around craft and culture, and there is a new collection of poems fighting its way out of me.