Chris Abani

Chris Abani

Excerpt from The Secret History of Las Vegas

This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.


The dying sun burnished the copper ingot of the Mandalay Bay. Next to it was the pyramid of the Luxor and, reclining in front, the light catching the gold paint of its headdress, the Sphinx. Farther to Sunil’s left, the Bellagio and the tip of the Eiffel Tower rose above Paris Las Vegas. The Venetian, his favorite, was obscured.

He loved this moment when the sun was on a slow decline, just before the abruptness of night that seemed exclusive to deserts and plains. It reminded him of the light on the South African veld. One moment bright and full, the next, gone. The veld was just like its name, a stubby felt of grass and trees and small hills that seemed to break only when the green and brown rim of it touched the sky.

cover The Secret History of Las Vegas

For one magical summer as a seven-year-old, he’d left Soweto behind on a summer trip to see his grandmother, Marie. She lived in KwaZulu, a homeland—one of those odd geographies created arbitrarily by the apartheid state as all black enclaves within South Africa. Not unlike Native American reservations, homelands were corrals, ways to contain and further impoverish native populations: entire settlements made up of shanties leaning unevenly into the wind.

Grandma Marie lived in the foothills, and as Sunil and his mother, Dorothy, traveled higher into the old Zulu territory, the shanties disappeared. Up there, everything felt different— the pace moved only as fast as the swaying fields of corn, or the lumbering herds of zebu that roamed everywhere, horns curved like arms raised in prayer. Each cow was marked so distinctively, in so many variations of red, white, black, brown, rust, and dun, that from a distance they looked like flocks of birds littering the grass on the hillsides.

The frenetic mood of Soweto seemed then like a bad taste spat from the mouth, and the air smelled fresh and sometimes heavy with rain. There was hardly a white person to be seen, and the blacks were less suspicious of one another. The only anger was the gossip—how Lindiwe Mabena had slept with Blessing Nkosi’s husband a week after she died. How Catechist Brown was never the same after Father John passed, though no one would admit they’d been lovers. How Doreen Duduzile always miscarried because she’d had an abortion as a young woman in Cape Town, and how though she’d renounced the world and followed the Lord, she couldn’t find any respite until she confessed to the murder of her unborn child, but as his mother told Grandma Marie, there are no words for some things. Everything else was pure scent. The smell of the toffees his grandmother pressed into his palms that melted in the heat of his clutched fingers, the drying grass and herd animals that filled the air with dust and delight. And something else—butterflies—everywhere, butterflies. And at dusk, the soft purple pastel of sky blurred into the darkening grass and then, before he could count to a hundred, night.

Sunil knew that his memory was faulty, that it was so tempered by nostalgia it could offer nothing concrete, but that knowledge did nothing to diminish his joy in the recollection.

The sun in his eye brought him back to the moment, to his body standing at the window of his sixth-floor office in the nondescript building in the nondescript business park east of the strip that was home to the Desert Palms Institute. His reflection in the glass made him uncomfortable, the way the honesty of shop windows makes fat women flinch. His hair was kinky and thick like a wool cap—not quite an Afro, but close enough—his nose clearly his mother’s, the soft mouth that he believed he’d inherited from his father, and skin so dark, he could be black. His eyes were the only thing he liked about himself, soft and warm, and honey-colored flecked with green; his father’s eyes, Brahmin eyes, a strange thing for a Sikh, stranger still in an African. Sighing, he took a sip from his coffee cup and focused on the view.

Sunil loved to watch the city from his office window, high up, tracking every little change in the landscape. He knew very well the illusion of chronology, the way it gave the impression that everything moved onward, expanding on a straight line, heading toward epiphany. But events weren’t linear, they moved in circular loops that made little sense, and this disjointed reality was the only truth. Chronology, he believed, was a pattern grafted over the past to claim control and understanding, to pretend meaning. It was all shit, though, in the end. He felt people were made of little more than this: history, myth, and ritual. When he remembered his past, he remembered his father with the distance of myth.

He drew with his forefinger on the glass to connect the hotels with invisible lines, reading some esoteric Masonic notions in the pattern. Even from this far away, he could see the extravagance of it all, an extravagance that was as old as the city itself. A history buff, he knew the Jewish-Irish-Sicilian mob syndicate that built the mirage of Vegas opened grandiose hotels early. In 1952, the Sahara was designed to mimic the movie romanticism of North Africa. In 1955, the Dunes, with waitresses dressed like DeMille extras in an Arabian Nights production, and a thirty-foot-tall turbaned black sultan with crossed arms guarding the doors, appeared almost overnight. And in 1956, in the new Fremont, twelve-year-old Wayne Newton rose to fame singing “Danke Schoen.”

Vegas is really an African city, Sunil thought. What other imagination would build such a grandiose tomb to itself? And just like in every major city across Africa, from Cairo to his hometown of Johannesburg, the palatial exteriors of the city architecture barely screened the seething poverty, the homelessness, and the despair that spread in townships and shanty-towns as far as the eye could see. But just as there, here in Vegas the glamour beguiled and blinded all but those truly intent on seeing, and in this way the tinsel of it mocked the obsessive hope of those who flocked there.

In Johannesburg there had been the allure of gold and untold monies to be made in the mines. Gold so plentiful, there were hills of it. No one bothered to explain to the obsessed that the glittering hills were just a trick of the light—mounds of yellow sand dug up for the gold, the silicate glowing in the sun with false promise. No wonder he felt at home here.

He hadn’t lived in Johannesburg since White Alice left, shortly after his mother was taken to the madhouse, and he had returned only once in the years since, just after apartheid officially came to an end. He’d been shocked then to see that the once vibrant city center had turned into a ghost town. Indians and whites had emptied out, fleeing either abroad or to the suburbs. What surprised Sunil, though, was that in the wake of that flight, the city hadn’t been filled by South African blacks leaving the townships for more salubrious digs, but by Nigerian and Senegalese businessmen selling everything from the popular Nollywood movies to phone cards. The feeling of racial camaraderie hadn’t been extended to these invading blacks, who the more gentle South Africans thought were worse than Zulus, which was saying something.

Now Sunil thought of Las Vegas as home. That’s the thing about having always been a displaced person; home was not a physical space but rather an internal landscape, a feeling that he could anchor to different places. Some took easier than others, and although it was always hard work, he was good at it.

He had come to Vegas from Cape Town seven years ago to codirect a new research project at the Desert Palms Institute, which, among its many government contracts and research projects with no oversight, was studying psychopathic behavior. This was the project Sunil had come here to work on. He had expected to enjoy the work, but what he had not expected was that he would fall in love with the city.

His attention returned to the coming night and the darkness that held nothing but what was projected. Was night the same everywhere? In the Soweto of his childhood the darkness was a contradiction of lights, noise, and an absolute stillness that held only police cars cockroaching through. Here in Las Vegas, near the Strip, where it never really got dark, could anything be revealed in the bright neon? He often tried to read the faces teeming there but quickly realized that everything was obscured, even in revelation; the brightness was its own kind of night.

Noticing that the coffee had run in a tiny rivulet down the side of the cup, Sunil frowned and reached for his monogrammed handkerchief, a throwback to his childhood, to the older men in Soweto who always seemed to have a clean handkerchief on them, no matter how threadbare and patched. He wiped the rivulet away, brows furrowed in concentration.

There was an exactness to Sunil that spilled out into the world and was reflected in his sense of order: the neat row of very sharp pencils in the carved ebony holder on his desk, upright and ranked by use like soldiers on a parade ground; the sharp diagonal line connecting the brushed aluminum box of multicolored paper clips and the stapler; the small photo, not much bigger than a baseball card, held in a solid block of Perspex, angled so that it was visible to him and anyone sitting across from him.

The photo was of a man with a red turban and a thick black beard and mustache. It was eroded on one side, the man’s face disappearing under a mottled furry stain. Sunil still sometimes wondered if it really was his father or a generic photo of a guru that his mother had bought in the market. He’d been too scared to ask and he regretted that.

Against one wall, color photographs of zebu cattle were arranged like the speckled squares of a Rubik’s Cube. The riotous color and patterns of the cattle hides contradicted all his control. Like a tarot deck, Asia had said the first and only time she’d come to his office. They’d had sex on the sofa and, walking around nude, she’d stopped by the wall, mentally shuffling the framed cows, trying to read the spread. He’d felt more naked than she was in that moment, more revealed than when they had sex, and though she came to his home often after that, he never asked her back to the office again.

He sighed now and crossed to the sideboard to pour himself some more coffee, wondering if he should call her and see if she was free tonight. It was Halloween, though, and she was no doubt busier tonight than on other nights. Everyone else was.


Eskia was sitting in his car in the parking lot of the Desert Palms Institute, watching Sunil’s sixth-floor office. He had followed Sunil from a distance for days, always staying just out of sight, always within touching distance. He couldn’t believe how soft America had made Sunil. In the past he would never have been able to get this close to him. Those were the days— days that Eskia both loved and hated. Days that he could never forget, never quite muster the will to leave behind. He said the word, apartheid, under his breath. The way someone says the name of a lover they want to murder and fuck at the same time. His character had been forged in that crucible, in that dysfunctional relationship. Yep, Sunil had become as soft as the police. They were the easiest to follow, they never saw it coming, their sense of complete invincibility made them blind. Eskia laughed at the thought of Sunil being like the police.

There was a small bag of biltong on the seat beside him and he chewed thoughtfully on the cured meat, grateful that he’d been able to get it past customs. The last time he’d had to make do with American jerky. He took a swig from the Dr Pepper that was not as cold as he liked it, and a bite of biltong, and looked up at the window he had seen Sunil standing in. It didn’t seem to bother Eskia that he was in plain sight in the parking lot and that the thick-rimmed plastic-framed glasses were the only disguise he wore. It was surprising how people never gave nerds a second glance, how this look always blurred into a generic account if witnesses were pressed to recall who they’d seen.

He’d learned from his years working undercover for the African National Congress, the political party Nelson Mandela led, that this disguise was most effective on white people. Something about a black man in thick Clark Kent glasses threw off their balance and they simply edited him out of their perceptual reality. He even checked into hotels under the name Clark Kent, and no one ever made a joke when he presented his papers, pushing his oversize glasses up his nose. Not at the hotels, not at the airport or in customs or immigration: nowhere. If it worked for Superman, he always said, it was good enough for him. Besides, the security guards at the institute were predictable and not paid well.

What he’d come for would be easier than he thought, but no less fun. He was here to kill Sunil.

He leaned back to wait. He was good at that.

Copyright © 2014  by Chris Abani