‘Every Day is for the Thief’ gives Lagos a fair shake
American aviatrix Amelia Earhart poses with flowers as she arrives in Southampton, England, after her transatlantic flight on the "Friendship" from Burry Point, Wales, on June 26, 1928. The tri-motor "Friendship" was piloted by two men as Earhart served as the commander, making her the first woman passenger to fly across the Atlantic. (AP Photo)
Flying from the east coast to the west coast in 12½ hours, Col. Roscoe Turner, pictured here in front of his plane in New York, Nov. 14, 1932, just before he hopped off, lowered the record by a whole two hours and 17 minutes. The previous record was established by Frank Hawks on August 6, 1930. (AP Photo)
Mrs. Geraldine Mock climbed from her tiny aircraft at Honolulu Airport on, April 13, 1964 and talked to her husband in Columbus, Ohio, over a telephone specially setup at plane side. The aviatrix completed the 2,300-mile leg of her world-circling solo flight in 15 hours 30 minutes, and appears certain to become the first woman to solo around the globe when she reaches the U.S. Mainland later in the week. With Mrs. Mock is the man who installed the phone -- George Montgomery, a supervisor with the phone company. (AP Photo)
?Ham,? the space chimp, after the 420 mile ride aboard a Redstone rocket in Cape Canaveral on Feb. 1, 1961. The chimpanzee was fired from Cape Canaveral, Florida riding in a Mercury capsule. (AP Photo)
Howard Hughes, industrialist, film producer and pilot, poses in the cockpit of his new racing plane after a test flight in Los Angeles August 17, 1935. The plane, nearly two years in construction at a cost believed to be more than $100,000, was to be piloted by Hughes in the Bendix race from Los Angeles to Cleveland. (AP Photo)
** FILE** A view of Laika, Nov., 1957, the female dog the Russians say is riding in outer space as a passenger aboard Sputnik II. Just a month after the Soviet Union stunned the world by putting the Earth's first artificial satellite into orbit, it boasted a new victory _ a much bigger satellite carrying a mongrel dog called Laika. The mission, 50 years ago Saturday, helped pave the way for human flight. (AP Photo/NASA, file)
** FILE ** Test Pilot Scott Crossfield sits in a centrifuge machine which duplicates the stress of extreme acceleration encountered by jet pilots at high altitudes, in this Feb. 28, 1958, file photo. A single-engine airplane registered to legendary test pilot Scott Crossfield, the first man to fly at Mach 2 and Mach 3, was missing Thursday, April 20, 2006, a day after it left Alabama for the Washington, D.C., area. The plane was last spotted on radar Wednesday in Georgia, north of Atlanta, the Civil Air Patrol's Georgia Wing said. (AP Photo/file)
FILE--This is an undated photo of Bessie Coleman, the world's first licnesed black aviator, who is the subject of a new children's book called "Nobody owns the Sky" by Reeve Lindbergh, daughter of the late Charles Lindbergh, it was annouced in New York Friday, Sept. 27, 1996. Coleman, known as "Queen Bess," had to go to France to learn how to fly, but got her license two years before Amelia Earhart and returned to her segregated homeland to perform daredevil stunts in the American sky. (AP Photo/HO)
In Walter Mosley’s classic detective novel Devil in a Blue Dress, Easy Rawlins tries to beg off from his first case by saying he wants to stay out of trouble. “Easy,” he’s told, “walk out your door in the morning and you’re mixed up in something.”
Teju Cole is our premier novelist of walking out the door and getting mixed up in something. His superb 2011 novel, Open City, is about little more than the hero wandering the streets of New York City and Brussels while musing on art, nature, family and history. Too aimless for a novel? Cole understood that going all over the place could offer a thematic direction as blunt and clear as a one-way sign. Here was a person embracing his introversion to better live in the wider world, and Cole rendered it in gorgeous, photographic prose.
Cole’s newly available novel, Every Day Is for the Thief, was first published in 2007 in Nigeria, where Cole grew up. The setting is Lagos, but the sensibility is the same as in Open City: Our nameless hero roves the streets, encountering shopkeepers and scam artists, touts and thugs, pondering their meaning all the while.
There isn’t much of a story arc. The book begins with his arrival from New York City and ends with his departure. Yet Cole has a knack for elevating each individual encounter into something weighty and poetic. In an internet cafe where men are busily writing those infamous “advance-fee” scam emails that fill your spam folder, Cole writes, “I feel as though I have discovered the source of the Nile.”
That’s just a drop of the torrent of criminality Cole observes, from the constant bribes that keep Lagos running, to the intimidating “area boys” who attempt to heist a shipment of donated school goods, to an 11-year-old child set aflame for stealing – “a wick, nameless, snuffed.”
The narrator is rightly infuriated at all this, but the tone of Every Day Is for the Thief isn’t so much outraged as coolly observational. His anger at Lagos’s dysfunction is tempered by glimpses of culture during his travels: a jazz club, a woman reading on the bus. Such moments can’t patch over the city’s corrosion, but they do explain his reluctance to dismiss the place. Cole love-hates Lagos the way Martin Amis love-hates London, or Edwidge Danticat love-hates Haiti, or Nelson Algren love-hated Chicago.
Every Day Is for the Thief is a slim book, bulked up slightly with 19 of Cole’s photographs of Lagos. Tellingly, many of the pictures emphasize how difficult it is to see the city: The image is blurred or shot through cracked glass, a fence or rain-spattered car windows. Such photos are apt symbols for a place Cole calls “creative, malevolent, ambiguous,” and his determination to respect and question each of those three elements infuses every page.
The book thrives on the patience and precision of Cole’s vision, the sense that somebody, for the first time in a while, is giving Lagos a fair shake.