‘I am Bingo Mwolo. I am the greatest runner in Kibera, Nairobi, and probably the world.” Bingo, the narrator of James A. Levine’s second novel, “Bingo’s Run,” races through the narrative, but not for sport. He is a 15-year-old drug runner, unusually short (by his own description a “growth retard” ) with his own set of commandments (“1. Run. Do not stop. If you stop, you are nowhere.” “6. Do not steal from someone poorer than you.”). Bingo manages to create an entire world simply through his voice: the voice of a survivor entrenched in a confusing and corrupt environment.
Throughout the novel, Bingo makes references to a trickster god from African folklore — an appropriate comparison, given that survival for Bingo requires extreme cleverness. Bingo has had a rough childhood; he carries the unshakable memory of witnessing his mother’s violent death (“9. Love Mama. Forget Father.”). And it doesn’t get any less rough; early on in the narrative, he witnesses a murder at the home of his drug-lord boss.
By a bizarre turn of events, he ends up in an orphanage and later is adopted by a divorcee art dealer. Their relationship is a strange one; he views her in sexualized terms, paying special attention to her breasts, while she seems to view him as a prize, of sorts. When he tries to interest her in a local artist’s work, the relationship becomes even more complex, as the two try to out-hustle each other. One plot twist leads to another, and then another, and then another.
Through it all, Bingo’s voice guides us; by turns he is aggressive, confident, smart, cynical, but also naive. Bingo tosses his observations at us with great urgency, almost percussively, in a staccato manner that recalls gunshots.
And though he’s blunt, he’s also a sensitive observer: when he first sees his adopted mother, he calls her eyes “deep green, like a storm.”
Levine has also given his African characters a believable patois, with phonetic spellings you grow used to rapidly, as if you were listening to an audiobook. “Sir” becomes “sa”; “you” becomes “ya”; Bingo’s nickname is “meejit” for “midget”; “I’m” becomes “I’z”; white people become “whiteheads;” and so on. Whether or not residents of Nairobi would confirm the accuracy of this dialect is almost not the point — the larger point is that with these touches, Levine is creating a sense of an entire world, raffish and fast.
It is a world that is also deeply, almost casually corrupt: The priest who directs an orphanage is tangentially involved in drug sales; Bingo boasts about having a ready supply of hookers whenever he wants them (“8. Do not spend all your money on beer and hookers.”).
Levine, who is a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, has an instinct for gripping, activist fiction; his first novel “The Blue Notebook” was a graphic portrayal of the life of a child prostitute in Mumbai.
There are problems in “Bingo’s Run.” The story’s leaps and twists go from surprising to unbelievable, particularly near the end, when a series of brief chapters turn the story on its head repeatedly, and tie it up too hastily. Bingo’s adoptive mother also morphs from a vaguely sinister figure, a little too proud of her “perfect” black adoptee, to a loving, honest woman with such speed that all but the most open-minded reader would get whiplash while watching the transformation. The larger story Levine is telling, though, is the story of a person’s mind, and of the good, bad, and indifferent forces that make him what he is — and that story is told with compassion and intelligence.