Black, a bi-racial mural artist in East L.A., lives above the “Ugly Store” café run by his friend Iggy. Depressed and haunted by the ghosts of a tortured childhood, Black’s life is focused on his art, his obsession for the transsexual stripper Sweet Girl, and the spaceship he has built on the roof. Black’s mind has fused together the Virgin Mary and Sweet Girl into the inspiration for his newest work, an homage to Fatima as the Virgin of Flames.
Black’s identity and sexual confusion has been influenced by several critical factors. His Nigerian-born father believed in an Igbo family curse in which a malevolent spirit kills the male children. To prevent this, he dressed his son as a girl until age seven. Around the same time, he was sent to Vietnam on a NASA-related mission during which he disappeared and was presumed dead. The death of her husband sent Black’s Salvadorian mother into religious fanaticism in which she forced her son to spend hours in prayer while kneeling on rice and other acts of mortification of the flesh. When she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in Black’s early teens, he nursed her until her death, after which Black traveled around the US for several years.
Chris Abani’s The Virgin of Flames is a seething mass of conflicted emotion and despair. Black floats through life in a self-focused bubble, unaware of the damage he causes his friends, acquaintances and the devout Catholics of Los Angeles. His practice of donning the wedding dress he stole from Iggy and climbing on his spaceship has been reported as sightings of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The “Ugly Store” has become a site of pilgrimage for devout Catholics, a fact which doesn’t trouble Black – although the increasingly frequent visitations from the angel Gabriel (sometimes as a pigeon) do.
Black carries with him rituals to help order the chaos of his life, many of which are tied to his art. He views the painting of Fatima as his salvation - “the mystery was the only thing that could save him now.” In the same way that the devout seek a miracle at the “Ugly Store,” Black is seeking a miracle at the feet of his 50-foot Fatima.
What that miracle may be is unclear, and Adani suggests that Black is conflicted. Part of him seeks a transformation; at the same time, he desperately fights to maintain his masculine identity. The violence of his surroundings reflects the violence swirling within his soul. His friends inhabit a world of violence and exhibit the same tendency to self-flagellation - Ray-Ray with his drugs, Iggy in her piercings and tattoos, and Bomboy, who has translated his childhood experience killing in Rwanda into a profitable career as a butcher.
The Virgin of Flames disturbs as it illuminates, causing a visceral reaction in most readers who will find themselves recoiling from the truths revealed in Abani’s dazzling prose. This is a novel which lingers long after the final page is read.