Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 debut “Beasts of No Nation’’ hummed and twitched with life. This slim novel was told from the perspective of Agu, a boy soldier forced to fight in a civil war in an unnamed African country, and everything — the simple, poetic pidgin that Agu speaks; the first-person, present-tense narration and its rushing syntax — made us feel the immediacy of Agu’s experience. One couldn’t read “Beasts’’ at a distance; one entered into it as one enters into a fever dream, tossing and turning and dreading.
Iweala’s second novel, “Speak No Evil,’’ is a different kind of beast. True, there are some similarities between the two works. Iweala again uses first-person narration. For the bulk of the book, we’re with Niru, a Harvard-bound, Nigerian-American high schooler and track star struggling with his sexuality. For the last bit, we occupy the perspective of Niru’s best friend, Meredith, the white daughter of Washington, DC, power brokers. As in “Beasts,’’ Iweala again uses the present tense — a perfect fit for his propulsive debut, a less effective choice for the more languid “Speak No Evil.’’
Finally, Iweala is again interested in how young men negotiate the often-brutal demands of authority. Once Niru’s religiously conservative father discovers that his son is gay, he beats and threatens to disown him, eventually bringing him to Nigeria for conversion therapy. (It fails.) In “Beasts,’’ Agu lacked all agency — that’s the tragedy of his story — and Niru also feels powerless: “I have no desire to be here, but I also know there are battles that you fight to fight and battles that you fight to win, and refusing to get on the plane was not going to do anyone any good.”
Yet it’s the differences between the two novels that are most striking. Where “Beasts’’ had the feel of a fable, removed from temporal and geographical specificity, “Speak’’ continually reminds us of its contemporaneity, from a casual reference to a lecture on “Teju Cole and the African Imagination” to the plot significance of Grindr to a major latetwist involving police brutality. (A jarring development that felt as if a different kind of story barged into the room and decided to take over.)
“Speak No Evil’’ is, despite this late shift, a coming-out story — the story of Niru speaking his previously unspoken desire and finding the dangers that come with it: “Before I said it out loud, I could pretend I didn’t know . . . speaking the words out loud, I feel like I’ve let something loose that I can’t control.” Yet Iweala’s writing curiously lacks urgency, even when describing the disruptive force of erotic desire. Early on, we hear the suspiciously on-theme words of Niru’s teacher: “For the Greeks, pleasure derived from submission to passion, and passion appeared in many forms. Desire had no right. No wrong.” “Speak’’ talks about passion and ponders submission; “Beasts’’ gave those things pulsing life.
It’s unfair to criticize “Speak’’ simply on the grounds that it differs from its predecessor. The best sophomore novels — James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room,’’ for instance — often shift into new fictional territory. But there’s something off about “Speak,’’ both at the large-scale structural level and in its details. The novel, for instance, opens with a rare DC blizzard — essential for the plot, as Meredith and Niru get snowed in and this isolation leads to his coming out — yet somehow neither teachers nor students know of the impending storm. Later, Meredith considers driving from DC to Boston, and we’re told that this will take five hours — at least two hours off.
These are minor problems, of course, but they hint at something larger. “Speak No Evil’’ seems labored. (There’s been a 13-year gap between novels for Iweala.) Maybe it’s a result of trying to inhabit Niru’s ingenuous perspective, but the work contains a number of cliché-ridden sentences: “This is supposed to be my season to carve my own space if I play my cards right.” When we get to Meredith, whose section is written a few years after Niru’s and so should offer a way out of the ingenuousness trap, we get this clotted attempt to sum up Trump’s America: “It’s a brave new world wrapped around the old one to make it great again.” While in Nigeria, Niru worries that he will “disappear into the mess of all these people and never be seen or heard from again.” Iweala’s prose performs a similar disappearing act, flattening out that which was previously distinctive.
“Speak No Evil’’ has things to recommend it. Iweala writes beautifully about DC (his hometown), and the Nigeria set piece sings and singes. To say that this book is a disappointment is in part to admit the achievement of Iweala’s debut — and to hope that his next recaptures its imaginative and stylistic power.
SPEAK NO EVIL
By Uzodinma Iweala
Harper, 224 pp., $26.99Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’