When used for apparent good (the premise for the American hostage escape from Iran was built around a feature film that had much collateral—including detailed storyboards—but was never going to be shot) purposeful deceit has its place. Dazzled by Hollywood hype, the unwitting authorities had only their gullibility to blame for the liberation of the wrong-place, wrong-time U.S. citizens. When revealed, the intentional duplicity was largely applauded in the Western world (cross-reference below).
Faux narratives for personal gain are the raw materials for Nigerian-based Internet frauds and scamming. In Will Ferguson’s imaginative tale of 419 (the section of the Nigerian penal code that deals with “Advanced Fee Fraud”), one man’s gullibility and inner-desire to come to the rescue of a wealthy damsel in distress (Miss Sandra is attempting to flee the country, if only some kind soul would bank her $35,600,000 fortune so that the corrupt government officials don’t rob her blind) turns into death, destitution and terminal delusion.
Thank goodness it’s only fiction…
But much more than laying bare the inner-workings of the legions of con artists who flood e-mail inboxes with millions of requests for assistance which—sooner or later—always include the promise of extra-generous fees for merely safe-harbouring cash for a short period of time, Ferguson tries to get at the why-side of this systemic preying on the human vices of greed and pride in fanciful circumstances that could only happen in the movies—or so we hope.
Accordingly, much of the book paints a detailed portrait of life then and now in Nigeria (beginning in the so-called Republic of Shell where the magnificent delta is wasting away with oil slicks and power struggles, notably the Ijaw tribe whose colourful past includes selling Igbo as slaves to oyibo [white men] from the aptly named Bonny Island slave port). Through his characters, Ferguson makes a convincing case that the millions pilfered by 419ing easily swayed whites is nothing short of retribution for crimes-past by the “pink skins” who’ve raped the country’s wealth and sent the fittest amongst them overseas into miserable lives of servitude.
A covey of journeys provide the vehicles to weave the disparate array of personas and beliefs into a compelling fabrication that falls just short of outright believability:
After being royally swindled out of his life’s savings, Henry Curtis loads up on life insurance then drives over the cliff of despair. As the awful reality is—inevitably—brought to light, his fastidious copyeditor and determinedly single daughter, Laura, decides to head off to Lagos, unmask then confront the killers—more for inner-satisfaction than the faint hope of getting the long-gone money back. In order to do this, she has to set herself up as another mark for the insatiable con artists.
Pregnant and alone, Fulani (clan of the Sahel) Amina outfitted with just a gasoline-scented jerry can and a few scraps of food, opts to walk away from her people and try to find some semblance of a real life for her unborn child in the south.
Working their way from the delta, north to Kaduna, Nnamdi, a thoughtful young man steeped in his father’s storytelling skills and Joe, a rough-around-the-collar opportunist Turk, ferry a tanker full of oil through countless checkpoints (early-on mastering the art of slowing down to pay the bribes—ten-kilometre-an-hour handshake: think toll booths with legs—rather than risk stopping and likely being shaken down for more naira bills) to a huge payday if they and their cargo manage to arrive in one piece.
Finally, university-educated, otherwise unemployed Winston treks from cybercafé to cybercafé, travelling millions of miles in virtual space waiting for the next one-in-a-million-sucker who will line his dark pockets (and those of his wheezing “pimp” and protector) with money they have no qualms about making from the misery of their marks. His mantra: “It’s not enough to tell a lie…One has to believe in it as well.”
Perhaps dwelling a tad too long with the various back-stories at the expense of pushing the main drama forward, Ferguson artfully brings his ensemble together in Lagos for a marvellous display of comeuppance, naiveté, revenge-gone-horribly-wrong and more or less allowing the principals to find closure over this oh so regrettable affair.
Of course, none of us would ever fall for such an obvious sham unless, like Henry Curtis—who at a tender age made his daughter search out the owner of a dropped twenty-dollar bill because it wasn’t hers—have a naturally trusting nature and desire to make this world a better place for those who have, apparently, been wronged. JWR