Biko Lives

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

A Black food writer gets caught up in the tumult of an African coup.

That’s the thumbnail description of BIKO LIVES, by Robert Gardner. The novel is that rare thing, a satirical work which induces laughter for many of its 349 pages. And some tears as well.

The hero of this tragi-comic tale is Madison Whitehouse, an African-American who flees segregated South Carolina and settles in Greenwich Village, hoping to make it as an actor. To pay the rent Madison takes a job in the kitchen of a small dive, where the cooking skills he learned from his mother help him to scrape by.

The time is 1971. “People were throwing off convention and I found myself in the middle of it…Revolution was in the air and I declared myself a revolutionary Artist,” Madison explains in a first-person voice. Then he meets Marisol, “a force of nature: tough, direct, wilful, determined and compassionate with a body like a viola…She was James Cagney in a dress.” She claims to be from Mississippi but is really Puerto Rican. She is also one hell of a cook—and a leftist firebrand. Soon every “communist, socialist, cultural nationalist, Maoist, and follower of the New Left” was scarfing down her food and using her café as a meeting place.

Madison soon becomes disenchanted with these “trust fund babies,” telling them that “socialism is soft money business and communism is a serious hammer where everybody who followed Stalin is your God. Good luck with that.”

Their disdain causes him to rebel and swing to the right. Twenty years later finds him writing (under the name of Biko) for conservative organizations, affirmative action, the Third World and the Democratic Party (though he stubbornly thinks of himself as a free thinker). Someone called him “the whitest black man in America.”

Madison also has a side hustle, writing (underl his birth name) about “the intersection between history, race, culture and food…”a particular area I had to myself.” He churns out a book, “Liberal Fast Food/Conservative Meal,” which becomes an international best-seller and changes his life. “George Bush and Margaret Thatcher invited me to dine,” he boasts.

After going through an unpleasant and costly divorce, he reluctantly agrees to write a food/travel book on Africa, a continent he has always thought of as a “big blob, a footnote of world history .” What follows is comedy of errors and horrors. He arrives in the fictional country of Nyasa just as coup d’état takes place. The revolutionary government treats him as a spy and throws him in prison, where he is beaten, fed rotten food and forced to share a cell with the deposed King Chuma.

He finally manages to escape, only to find himself hunted by the CIA and a posse of American evangelical Christians (“the only white people to be found in Africa.”) Out of desperation, he joins a band of guerillas and takes part in the civil war, a foodie turned foot soldier.

Whitehouse is a perpetual fish out of water, a man who never fits in anywhere. And no matter what he does or writes, his ex-wife Angela and his cousin Janice keep finding fault with him. Their critical and jeering e-mail messages to him serve as a kind of Greek chorus.

Despite all the dreadful things that befall him, Whitehouse never loses his sense of humor. His ability to laugh in the face of follow and cruelty is a rare and remarkable thing.