Coming to America... with regrets

Friday August 24 2012

The majority of the stories in the Wanderers are driven by the journey motif — either to a place or into the shadowy corners of the character’s mind. Photo/File

The characters in Edward Belfar’s collection of short stories, Wanderers, are almost all troubled in one way or another. To them, the journey appears to offer some form of succour for their emotional turmoil; a gleam of hope and redemption.

The stories range from the cross-cultural Mistaken Identity to psychological twisters like Ashes and A View of the Fireworks.

The majority of the stories are driven by the journey motif — either to a place or into the shadowy corners of the character’s mind. But then, like a faithful shadow, the ghosts the protagonists are fleeing always tag along, waiting in the shadows of a smoky piano bar in Rome or a dilapidated first-class compartment on the Nairobi-Mombasa overland for the lights to go out.

Belfar chooses to set most of his stories in the mental junkyard, where all the unwanted refrigerators, tired automobiles, smashed-in tube televisions and bust-up sofas end up; the graveyard of our ever-mutating civilisation.

The characters in most of his stories are people who have somehow fallen out from the centre; once productive and even celebrated people who have been consigned by the same system that once worshipped at their feet to subsistence in a muggy fringe area on the margins.

They are the characters you do not ordinarily get to see in feel-good Coca-Cola and Budweiser billboards.


America is known to be a mighty nation that likes extra-large servings of everything. But this also generates waste in the same measure.

The American stories follow this cycle to its end: Seedy dumps in condemned neighbourhoods where the residents crap in supermarket paper bags because the toilets won’t flush. And you thought “flying toilets” were invented in Nairobi’s Kibera!

In Eviction, the author introduces you to people like Willie Wilkins who voluntarily book themselves into a psychiatric hospital ward so that they can spend the wintry night in a hospital bed as guests of the state.

The story also presents a curious phase of a rich man’s problem. Increasing enlightenment of the sexes, it would seem, comes with its own set of complexities. America, despite its might, seems to be battling a basic problem: keeping the family unit intact.

Reading some of these stories will convince you that too much liberty can be a dangerous thing. Sooner or later, individuals start to appear like mere parts of a complex machine that has no qualms about spitting out defective parts and replacing them with more efficient ones.

The fact that a former baseball star can degenerate to the level of a rent-defaulting tenant in a dingy brothel in the blink of an eye illustrates why personalities are mere statistics in the land of Uncle Sam.

Then there are the temptations facing those striving to stay on the straight-and-narrow path in a fast-paced Kenya teeming with vultures and hyenas as captured in Something Small.

It takes a really strong man like Mwangi to keep from succumbing to the lure of graft, especially when it is the order of the day for friends and family.

Still in Kenya, the decay of the once enviable Nairobi-Mombasa overnight train service is captured in Departure. It is hardly something to be proud of in an age where countries like South Africa and India are minting tourist dollars out of selling a taste of the old safari experience.

The paradox of the migrant Kenyan abroad who assimilates thoroughly into the foreign culture, but who yet cannot quite fit in is captured in The Ruined House. It takes the same mzungu’s eye to reveal that it is all a show; that if you scratch the surface of a Christine Njeri-Clarke you will uncover a Njeri Kariuki.

In the eyes of their uninitiated kin back home, by taking on the ways of their adopted land, their African-wazungu kinfolk have become “sanctimonious old cows.”

And there might be a point. In their private selves, these assimiles still crave their mukimo (a traditional delicacy of mashed potatoes, green vegetables and maize) and Tusker; they are most relaxed in that out-of-town place where the fly-blown meat sizzles in the fat as the resident one-man guitarist croons: “Rike a mbridge over troubled wa-tah, I will ray me down…”

Although the short story Errors won the author the Sports Literature Association’s 2008 fiction prize, it was the most difficult for me to follow. I am like a Khoisan in a room full of Greeks when it comes to baseball and American football.

Try as much as I could to read between the lines, the story still got lost in the detail. Somehow all that technical lingo ended up blurring before my eyes, the way the English instructions on a backstreet Chinese product swim in front of your eyes. By the end of the story, I still couldn’t make head or tail of the game.

In all, the book is very readable, with the author’s typical bland Yankee humour providing the sauce to its grim fare.

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