Friday, March 11, 2016

Book 16: Out of Africa comes a story you won't forget.

I am a sucker for stories about, or set in, Africa. I don't think I've ever read a bad one -- from Into the Out Of by Alan Dean Foster to The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver to many, many more, if a story is set in Africa it's going to make my list to read.

Bingo's Run is the latest Africa story, and it did not disappoint. I stumbled across Bingo's Run while I was browsing around for a new (audio)book after finishing The Golem and The Jinni, having never heard of the book or the author before. From the first line ("I am Bingo Mwolo. I am the greatest runner in Kibera, Nairobi, and probably the world") I was hooked.

Bingo's Run follows Bingo as he moves from being a drug runner to potentially an art dealer worth millions to almost dying: At the outset, Bingo introduces us to his life as a slum kid in Nairobi. His days begin with him and Slow George, his possibly-retarded friend, stealing some food from the market, then throwing rocks at a crazy bum at the dump before Bingo goes to his boss, Wolf, a relatively-higher-up in a drug trade. Bingo's job is to run drugs to various buyers around Kiberra and Nairobi, and he is, as he says, the best at it.

The story gets into motion when Bingo sees Wolf murder another dealer, and Bingo absconds with a briefcase holding $200,000. He ends up at an orphanage run by a crooked priest, and then, rather suddenly, adopted by a rich art dealer from the US.

To say more would spoil the rest of the story, which is full of twists and turns, double-crosses, arguments, sneaky maids, mysterious characters, corruption, and African legends.  It's phenomenal.  The story itself is gripping, but the atmosphere the author, James Levine, creates moves the story above 'really good' into great.  Through Bingo's eyes we see the slums of Kiberra and the fancy hotels frequented by tourists, the insanity of artists in Nairobi, the grim reality of African jails and orphanages, and through Bingo's thoughts we get the confusion of a young boy trying to make sense of a world that's already chaotic and just gets more bewildering.

Bingo's own memories are parceled out through the story, along with what I took to be an African legend about the dawn of the human race, and his life is sad: he recalls spending time with his grandfather before the "gang boys" killed most of the village and forced his mom to flee -- and his memory of what then happened to his mom and how he feels about her is devastating. His friendship with Slow George is a wonder, and when the two get in an argument midway through the story I felt genuine anguish over it.

The ending to the story is, somehow, Gatsby-esque, and that's all I'll say about it: It evokes the ending of The Great Gatsby while being nothing like it at all, if that's possible.

)One thing that I find amazing is that the author was able to craft Bingo's life with what appears to be spot-on accuracy, from the language to the details of the city buses to everything, really; I'd assumed the author must be from Kenya or live there or something, but when I went to look up James Levine, I found out he's an English doctor who's now a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic. It seems his experience with Kenya comes from working with impoverished children, and PBS says he's also a "slam poetry champion." (He also wrote a book about how bad sitting is for you, I saw, which means he would likely take a dim view of what is pretty much my only form of exercise.) Plus he invented the treadmill desk. Levine himself seems about as interesting as his books: he used to drive around Cleveland at 2 a.m. and talk to drug dealers about diabetes.)

But back to Bingo's Run.  Here's how gripping the end of the story was.  Every night, I take Mr F for his nightly ride to calm him down enough to go to sleep.  The usual route takes 26 minutes; a slight hitch can turn it into a 32 minute ride.  But after the first 32 minutes, the story was so close to the end and getting so great that I looped us around another 1 1/2 times so we could hear the end and find out what happened without waiting until tonight.

Bingo's Run is one of those rare stories that I think everyone should read, even if you wouldn't ordinarily go for this kind of book. It's full of incredible, memorable characters, and has at least five scenes that you'll never forget.  I may just buy the hard copy of it to have around.

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