Though Chris Abani is a foreigner by birth, he has artfully exposed Los Angeles' heart of darkness in The Virgin of Flames, the follow-up to his acclaimed debut, Graceland, which was a Today Book Club pick, a Hemingway/PEN Prize winner and a selection of the Los Angeles Times' Best Books of 2004.

For most of its length, the Los Angeles River is an ugly scar carved by silt, sludge and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Located in the middle of an urban desert, it runs just about as frequently as the bulls at Pamplona, and with similarly lethal potential. Its concrete walls are targeted by gang-bangers staking out their turf, graffiti artists, and genuinely talented muralists short on money, space and commissions. It's within sight of this river that a half-Igbo, half-Salvadoran named Black finds himself among the latter of the three groups, living the common Los Angeles delusion that because the rich and famous so often intersect with los peones, the gap between his life and theirs is closer to infinitesimal than to infinite. As artists will, he has surrounded himself with a peculiar posse, including a Jewish tattoo artist/psychic with an A-list clientele, a rich Rwandan ex-pat abattoir owner, a junkie dwarf with a penchant for Raymond Chandler trivia, and a transsexual stripper who works the less prestigious South Central clubs when not serving as Black's muse.

In the hands of Preston Sturges, a cast like this would engage in a madcap romp through Los Angeles society, hijinks at every wacky turn, rollicking toward a socko ending that would find Black the toast of the town. Bzzzzzzt. Wrong answer.

As soon as the angel Gabriel shows up in various guises, from a 15-foot-tall apparition to a lowly pigeon, impending tragedy is palpable. With a command of Los Angeles' underbelly reminiscent of Walter Mosley at his most striking, Abani spirits his angst-ridden artist toward a breathtakingly unexpected, if perhaps inescapable, conclusion.

Thane Tierney is a recovering record executive living mere blocks from some of the locations mentioned in this book.


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