Jessica Zafra, my very good, true and trusted amiga (!!!), published my book review of The Virgin of Flames in Jessica Rules the Universe and I’m here right now to immortalize the moment because it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside:
You may not be familiar with the people in Chris Abani’s The Virgin of Flames, but they are the sort of personalities you would love to gossip about. Instead of figuring what this novel is all about, you may be better off marveling at the oddities of the characters.
The novel follows its protagonist, Black, around Los Angeles as he tries to come to terms with his hauntingly ugly childhood through his art. He is a 30-something muralist on a quest to find himself in the vibrant city. He is introduced to the reader while trying on face paint, doing things with his face and basically being odd because he is An Artiste and a true weirdo. And nothing validates a weirdo more than a set of equally strange friends. He is surrounded by so much weirdness, sometimes you wish this were about them instead.
Black, to some readers, may seem too weird and foreign. He is a multiracial artist who likes a transsexual stripper, likes his Johnny Walker, and in his spare time dresses like the Virgin Mary. Is he gay? Is he a conventional weirdo? Two-hundred odd pages on and you still may not have figured him out. He keeps building the mystery. Towards the end of the novel, he even tries to learn how to tuck his penis in his butt the way a transvestite does—a real treat for guy readers. But if this were about his quest to discover his true sexuality, it may have been over in the first hundred pages. Besides, those who are not in the habit of wearing tanga to make a living would attest that dick-tucking is something you do exclusively for fun. Clearly, Black should make for an interesting read. But maybe you’d rather hang out with his penis or the sidekicks.
Bomboy Dickens is the primary sidekick. He spouts the novel’s most interesting bits of dialogue, but he’s sadly relegated to the role of comic relief. If it crosses your mind that The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is getting a worthy successor, it is due to the snappy retorts of Bomboy and his conversations with Black. Alas, Abani’s aim is not to appeal to your funny bones.
Also there is Iggy, Black’s landlady. She’s bald and she keeps a tattoo parlor and bar called The Ugly Store that has a mural filled with racist, politically-incorrect inscriptions. She keeps a midget servant who loves to quote Raymond Chandler. Iggy, she is also not like you and me.
Black’s penis, on the other hand, does not speak; nor does it have idiosyncrasies like Bomboy and Iggy. Its appearance is infrequent but its presence is major. It’s also sort of a plot-mover. Sometimes it alone drives him forward and mostly towards Sweet Girl, the immigrant Thai transsexual he’s inexplicably drawn to. Inexplicably because Black, who gives off a strong heterosexual vibe, is aware that the person he finds hopelessly alluring is also a man. Yet he persists. He is mightily attracted to Sweet Girl the lap-dancer, and that’s going to be the way it is. The intensity of Black junior’s erections dictates where this attraction is supposed to go. But this is not a love story, and Abani is resolute about not having any resolution.
Our hero obviously has Big Issues That Need Addressing rooted in his childhood traumas. If he hasn’t tired you out yet, maybe the flashbacks to his childhood will spring you back to life. His AIDS-afflicted mother is vicious—she makes the young Black perform self-flagellation in front of an altar, while his father is a confounding, ghostly presence—there, not quite there and finally, not there at all. Suddenly you think you know what this freak’s real issue is. You think you can finally feel satisfied with Black’s coming to terms with his misfortunes because he’s dealing with his feelings at last and working toward straightening out his life! But no.
If you’re exactly the kind of person who enjoys sneering at artist types, being unable to relate to them, this book may serve as an eye-opener or an entertainment featuring a gallery of freaks. You may not find anything to relate to, but its strangeness is a thing to behold. I don’t think I could trust anyone else to describe for me the rituals of strip-dancing and the art of tucking balls and shaft in one’s butt other than the seemingly demented Chris Abani.
The Virgin of Flames is a different kind of tale of self-discovery, one that doesn’t care much about reaching any discernible discovery. If you’re tired of tales of ditzy young girls and boys trying to find their luck in Hollywood, New York, or some other glamorous city, try this and have a balls-clutching experience. If you’re exasperated with small-town persons finding their way in the big, mean city, you may find a trip to Black’s lap-dance and alcohol-addled junction wildly entertaining. If anything, you’ll learn how to tuck your balls in your butt should the need for that ever arise in your boring life.